It seems Egypt’s military is proving that it doesn’t need a dictator to torture and brutalize its people. So is the revolution that broke out in Tahrir Square in February unravelling, or can nothing stop democracy now?
Cairo has now erupted in violence for the fifth day running. Egyptian troops and riot police, controlled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) raided the city’s Tahrir Square early on Tuesday in their latest attempt to evict protesters, reportedly killing four of them in the process.
This week’s violence began when protesters conducted a sit-in around the cabinet offices in Cairo to signal their rejection of the military’s appointment of Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister. Ganzouri announced that no violence would be used to break up the demonstration, but it did not take long for the military to attack.
At least 13 civilians have been killed since clashes began on Friday, and tragically much of the fighting is centered on Tahrir Square, the scene of unbound celebration when President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.
Soldiers with Molotov cocktails
Independent journalist Muhammad Mansour, who has been at the protests every day, said the soldiers have been fighting the protesters with their own weapons to sow confusion.
“There were some guys on the roof of the cabinet office, throwing stones,” he told Deutsche Welle. “They were wearing civilian clothes, but they are from the army, because there was a guy in uniform standing with them. On the ground there were also soldiers, throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.”
“They are attacking women and stripping them in the street, and beating them,” Mansour continued. “They went to the mosque and didn’t take off their boots when entering. Some people say this is not our army. The army is not protecting us, it’s just beating us.”
Some observers have suggested that the army has lost control of its soldiers, but Maha Azzam, associate fellow at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, doesn’t believe this.
“I think there are orders from SCAF that they want Tahrir Square cleared and they don’t want sit-ins,” she said. “The orders have probably been ‘deal with the protesters,’ and then the soldiers on the ground have taken it upon themselves to deal with them the way they want to.”
New age, old tactics
The SCAF has been in official control of Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, and presented themselves as the “guardians” of the transition to democracy. But the army was also the dictator’s chief instrument of repression throughout the three decades of his rule, and reports from the ground suggest that its tactics have been carried over seamlessly into post-Mubarak Egypt.
Activists have been kidnapped, interrogated and beaten. Even before the current riots began, Tahrir Square had been cleared violently several times in the past few months. Even members of parliament, elected recently in the country’s first democratic elections for decades, have reportedly been beaten up by military police.
According to Mansour, the protesters refuse to be cowed. “When the police open fire they run away, but then they turn back,” he said. “People are scared, but they have a faith, and I have heard people say they want to die here. They are ready to die. You cannot generalize – some are just coming to see the situation – but some of them are ready to die.”
There has also been shocking evidence of the military’s targeted attacks on women in recent days, after footage of a woman being stripped and stamped on by riot police went round the world.
“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in response.
Confused, desperate self-preservation
But it’s unclear what the military’s ultimate goal is, since they cannot hold on to power indefinitely. The parliamentary elections, which began at the end of November, have ensured that Egypt is on the road to democracy. The presidential election is expected to be held by July 2012. The military is rapidly losing the recognition it held as the guardians of the transition.
“What we’re seeing is a complete breakdown of the relationship between SCAF and wider political opinion in Egypt,” says Azzam. “I think at one point there was sympathy for the military and the fact that it could maintain a degree of security in the country, I think it’s now losing whatever support it had.”
And resistance from legitimately elected parties is hardening. News surfaced Tuesday that prominent political personalities and newly elected MPs, including members of the Democratic Alliance, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, are planning to stage a sit-in at Cairo’s supreme judiciary court.
“I don’t know what the army’s goal is,” says Mansour. “I don’t know what they are trying to get out of this situation, but I’m sure that they are confused. They don’t know how to run the country. They don’t have the political awareness or experience.”
No truce with killers
Azzam also thinks the SCAF’s violent repression is a desperate attempt at self-preservation. “I think the SCAF are nervous,” she said. “Because they’re worried that they will be held accountable for the death toll of protesters – and that is causing them to miscalculate.”
That miscalculation means the military is digging itself deeper and deeper into a hole. Mansour believes that public opinion has now turned thoroughly against the SCAF.
“I’ve been here since Friday,” he said. “I’m supporting the protesters for humanitarian reasons, but you find a variety of people there. You also find people who support the SCAF, but they get kicked out. There was a religious cleric there who was trying to tell demonstrators to make a truce with the military, but people were very angry and kicked him out. Because there’s no truce – how can you make a truce with soldiers, special forces, who are killing their people?”