Egypt two years after Mubarak (AWTWNS 4 February 2013)

The AWTWNS packet for the week of 4 February 2013 contains one article. It may be reproduced or used in any way, in whole or in part, as long as it is credited.

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Egypt two years after Mubarak

4 February 2013. A World to Win News Service. By Samuel Albert. On the second anniversary of the revolt that brought down Hosni Mubarak, protesters against the Islamic government that replaced him found themselves still fighting the same police units and the same beatings, torture and killing at their hands.

Demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities were marked by a rage at what many people consider the hijacking of what they call the “revolution” by the now-governing Moslem Brotherhood. Many thousands of youth and others fought, and many died, more than 50 according to Al- Ahram, in the name of the same slogans raised against Mubarak – “The people want the fall of the regime” and “Bread, freedom and social justice”.

This new round of upheaval against the government headed by Mohammed Morsi turned even more determined over the following days. On 25 January a court in Port Said sentenced 21 men to death for what it said was their role in a football stadium attack that killed 74 people. This provoked extreme outrage, because it was widely seen, locally and elsewhere, as a cynical attempt to make these football fans scapegoats for the killings.

During a February 2012 match between the capital’s al-Ahly and the Port Said club al-Masry, men armed with knives, swords and other weapons attacked the Cairo team’s supporters and chased down players. People were thrown from the stands. The stadium lights were turned off; according to some reports exit gates were locked. Many died or were injured in the stampede of people trying to flee.

The rivalry between the two teams and their fans is legendary and of course such things have their own dynamics. But nothing like this had ever happened before. In a break with standard practice, the police did not search people entering the stadium and did not intervene to protect those under attack. Many Egyptians believe that this was not a question of official negligence, but rather that the authorities had prior knowledge about the attacks, encouraged them and perhaps organized them. Even The New York Times (1 February 2012) gave credence to the widespread suspicion that this was an act of retaliation against the al-Ahly Ultras, a hard-core fan organization whose members have been in the forefront of fighting the police and other reactionaries from the first day of the anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square and ever since. The idea that this massacre was merely the result of sports rivalry was contradicted by the show of solidarity with the al-Ahly Ultras the next day by supporters of an even fiercer al-Ahly rival, Cairo’s Zamalek club, who forced the cancellation of a match, saying that football had to stop until there was justice for all.

Some media gave prominence to interviews with relatives of the slain who welcomed the death sentences, but many people in Port Said and everywhere else saw this as a continuation of attempts to divide the people and divert attention from the guilt of police and higher officials. Some were arrested, but none have been brought to trial.

In contrast to these death sentences, no security officials or even police have been held responsible for the killing of more than 800 civilians during the 18 days leading to the fall of Mubarak. Not even Mubarak was sentenced to death after being convicted for those deaths. Nor, as people like to point out, was the man who assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Indignation at this injustice led to a situation bordering on an uprising in Port Said, where crowds stormed the central prison and attacked police stations and other state institutions. Several police were killed. The al-Masry Ultras were said to play a big role in the fighting. Dozens of factories in this poor and highly industrial area were shut down. Similar events took place in Suez, at the other (southern) end of the Suez Canal. In the Canal city of Ismailia, protesters burned down the headquarters of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Moslem Brotherhood’s electoral wing. Coalitions of youth organizations were said to have been in the lead in these cities.

People in the Suez cities have felt denigrated and disadvantaged by the central government for decades. Port Said residents played a major role in the resistance to the Israeli, British and French forces that tried to seize the Suez Canal in 1956. Today older men in the city of Suez proudly recount how when the invading Israelis routed the Egyptian army at the Suez Canal in 1967, army members and activists organized and armed factory workers and other local people to successfully hold back the invaders. Many people here feel that their willingness to die to save Egypt and their hatred of Israel has been an embarrassment to every Egyptian government. Mubarak, people in Suez say, had a particular dislike for them. His successor Morsi acted against these cities with a vehemence not displayed in the capital. declaring a curfew and sending in the army.

The authorities’ eagerness to crush the Suez cities became even more apparent on 27 January, when police in Port Said opened fire at the funerals for the 30 demonstrators they had killed the day before. At least seven more people died. In the fighting that followed, the police were driven out of the city. Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets, chanting “Morsi leave”, “Down with the Brotherhood” and “The people want the state of Port Said.” The massive marches started at the curfew hour and lasted all night every night. Despite their state of emergency powers, the army could not – or did not dare – enforce the curfew or anything else for several days. The Morsi government finally backed off on these measures. Activists in Cairo organized a solidarity convoy to take supplies to Port Said.

Although the fighting in Suez had its own particularities, in the protests everywhere there seems to have been a common sense of fighting an unjust power structure, although what defines that structure remains as murky in many people’s mind as certain ugly events themselves. Who organized the Port Said stadium massacres? What are the connections between the army, whose Supreme Council was governing the country at that time, the police, the courts and the now-governing Moslem Brotherhood? And who or what could replace them?

A sense of dark forces and mysterious hands at work prevails among many Egyptians. It surged again after at least two dozen women were raped in and around Tahrir Square over the next week by bands of men, sometimes in large numbers and armed with knives. Certainly rape does not have to be organized from above in any country in today’s world, and sexual assaults against women have been a part of daily life in Cairo for a long time. Even when they occur spontaneously, as acts of individual men, they are a product of a society where the domination of men over women is generally taken as a given. But like, for instance, the “Battle of the Camel” during the 2012 revolt, when hordes of men tried to drive people out of Tahrir Square by heaving paving stones down on them as police looked on, and the Port Said stadium massacre, many people are now asking who these people – in this case these rapists  – represent and what links they might have with various levels and kinds of authorities. The police kill people for demonstrating in Tahrir but never bother rapists there, and rarely anywhere else, for that matter.

As the Suez Canal cities went out of control and fighting in Cairo intensified, on 29 January the head of the Egyptian armed forces and Defence Minister General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi warned the opposition parties taking part in the demonstrations and the Morsi government that the state itself was in danger of collapse. While he didn’t threaten army intervention, he didn’t have to in a country where the military ruled directly through generals like Mubarak for more than six decades before handing over the duties of government to Morsi five months ago. In any event, he declared, the military would remain “the solid mass and backbone on which rest the Egyptian state’s pillars.”

El-Sisi, it should be pointed out, seems to have been the then-anonymous senior general who defended army “virginity tests” of female protesters in an interview last April. Soldiers had rounded up women staging an International Women’s Day march in Cairo. While in detention they were separated into “girls” and “women” (that is, married females), and the vaginas of the “girls” were penetrated with sharp instruments to “test” if they were “virgins.” These women, the general told the CNN news channel, “are not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who camped out in tents with male protesters.”

No matter who the particular rapists in Tahrir may be, clearly this is a phenomenon tolerated and encouraged by the highest levels of Egyptian society and the prevailing morals under their rule. In the last few weeks women’s groups organized squads of women and some men to watch for mob assaults on women and rescue them. They also use Twitter to rally forces quickly as needed. Tahrir protesters have been called on to surround and physically stop assaults and any harassment. This may not yet involve enough people as it should, but it is extremely important because these rapes and the attitudes they concentrate are among the defining features of the Egyptian status quo that so many protesters hate and reject. This initiative also represents people’s taking matters into their own hands and opposing the prevailing pro-rape authority with a different and far better one.

Unfortunately, this is not, at least not yet, the general model. Insofar as the movement has an overall leadership, it is the opposition parties grouped together in the National Salvation Front. They have been demanding that Morsi resign and be replaced by a “government of national salvation”  including them. When the current round of protests began the NSF refused to hold talks with Morsi unless he first agreed to a “unity government”; by the end of January, Mohamed ElBaradei, its coordinator, said on Twitter, “Stopping the violence is the priority”. He called for immediate negotiations to bring opposition parties into government and set up a committee to review the constitution Morsi recently imposed and got ratified by a referendum. If this demand was not met, he threatened, the opposition would boycott the upcoming elections meant to bring back into existence the lower house of parliament that was dissolved by the courts. Without such elections, he and many others have warned, no government can be considered legitimate.

Al-Azhar, the mosque and Islamic university that is Egypt’s leading religious institution, along with some Salafists and representatives of the various Christian churches, brokered a “dialogue” to this end that was also attended by several figures associated with “revolutionary youth” organizations. It is said that earlier ElBaradei wanted to talk to the Defence Minister and the Interior Minister, who represent the military and security forces, and not the president who has little power over these ministers.

This is a complicated situation in which people full of righteous hatred for the situation – who hate the idea of an Islamic regime and the lack of any real change in Egyptian society since the “revolution” – have seen little alternative other than the prospect of some arrangement in which various parties that represent the status quo, whether Islamist or pro-Western and supposedly secular, would share in governing. If successful – and because the ideological and political rivalry between them is real, that is a big if – the result would be meant to heal the cracks in the power structure and strengthen the state apparatus that has been delegitimized and weakened. To be seen as more legitimate, the state Mubarak once led needs to present itself as a product of the revolt that overthrew him.

The armed forces would continue to play a central role in politics in one way or another, ready to back the police in enforcing the existing order. And Islamism would very likely play a central ideological and political role as well. This is not only because of the strength of Islamists (such as el-Sisi is said to be) in the armed forces. Nor is it just because the biggest Salafist party has broken with Morsi and allied with the “liberals” against the Brotherhood, which the Salafists feel is not Islamic enough. This “politics” is political horse-trading whose aim is to produce a governing coalition, and that alone should be an exposure of the “liberal” and “left” Salvation Front leaders.

More basically, even the most avowedly secular opposition leaders have no desire for radical social change and every reason to fear any questioning of the dominant values that have been bred by Egypt’s subjugation to imperialist capital and the capitalist world market and the backwardness imperialist domination has enforced.

The Brotherhood constitution seriously threatens the rights of the people, especially insofar as it makes religion the supreme source of values and criminalizes all sorts of things religion might deem offensive. It is especially odious in its blessings on the subjugated status of women. But for the Salvation Front parties, the cry for “freedom” most definitely does not mean freedom from an oppressive economic, social and political system. This is attested to by their willingness to set aside even the most elementary rights of women in order to form a governing coalition with forces that have a forthright stand in favour of patriarchy. How can anyone even mouth the word “freedom” without truly standing up for the freedom of women from rape and all the other manifestations of male supremacy? But that would require seeking to overthrow the system, not to save it.

Yet, even if, as reactionary observers like to point out, much of daily life in Cairo goes on as usual, apparently unaffected, the political upheaval involving millions of people continues and the process of the delegitimisation of the existing power structure and its institutions is not so easy to stop, no matter what the parties try to cobble together.

For instance, the police assault on participants in the Friday “Day of Reckoning” in Tahrir Square and in front of the presidential palace on 1 February turned out differently than hoped by the forces of order – and here that means all those who want to preserve that order in one way or another. The Central Security Forces (soldiers under the supposedly civilian command of Morsi’s Interior Minister) used what demonstrators reported to be a new and more dangerous form of tear gas.

The security forces snatched up many people and took them to their own camps rather than turning them over to the courts. One young man was beaten to death in Tahrir Square. Another was arrested and, according to his family, tortured to death, although the authorities claimed he was killed in a car accident. At the funeral for the two, many young men and women chanted, “Either we will get justice for them or die like they did.”

Although the police have killed many hundreds of people since Mubarak went down, these particular murders seemed to have had a certain resonance, perhaps because they so clearly link the security forces of the old Mubarak regime and the new Morsi government. Their similarities are unmistakable.

Also that night, several Egyptian satellite television channels showed footage of police swarming and savagely beating a 50-year-old man. Then they attached him to a police vehicle, stripped him naked and began clubbing him again. The next day, the authorities paraded him on TV, where he claimed that actually, it was protesters who were beating him and the police who came to save him. Later, after the uproar around the video obliged the authorities to release him, the man explained that the police had forced him to lie.

Many ordinary Egyptians have despised the police for years, but since millions of people had seen the video with their own eyes, and what they saw was unmistakable, what the authorities might have thought was a clever manoeuvre only brought about a new high water mark in public hatred for the police and the government that is protecting them. The police might feel they can do without Morsi, but Morsi clearly can’t do without the police.

The loathsomeness and in fact desperation of the guardians of order became even more naked and intolerable. But the question of what people will tolerate on every level is related to whether or not they think there is a real alternative, not only to hated regimes but the whole system whose logic these regimes represent.

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