x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

In chaos of Tahrir, politics drowned out by protests

Egypt's military rulers have squandered time, and goodwill, since Hosni Mubarak's departure. It is hard to see a political solution when Cairo is troubled by so much violence.

After Friday's massive rally where Egypt's religious groups were out in bristling numbers, only a few protesters remained in Liberation Square overnight. But the next morning Central Security forces invaded the sleepy square and forcibly ended the sit-in, killing several protesters. With peaceful demonstrators being arrested, tortured and tried in military courts, it has been the same brutal tactics that characterised the Mubarak regime.

With clashes continuing into the week, men and women continued to gather in the square, talking and chanting. In one confrontation as the sun set on Sunday, men converged on the Ministry of Interior two blocks away. Barrages of tear gas canisters were fired and soldiers in riot gear entered the Square from side streets beating whoever stood in their way. From a nine-storey balcony overlooking the Square (the flat of Pierre Sioufi, a refuge for protesters and journalists throughout the uprising), I felt as well as heard the roar of fear and dismay.

A bottleneck had formed on the pavement, which is separated from the street by a chest-high gate. Unable to get through or over, people panicked, trying to climb over one another; when they finally broke through, there was a pile of bodies on the ground. A soldier was separated from his fellows and protesters descended on him like wolves. The body of another man lay face down on the asphalt, only to be dragged by a black-clad guard to the side of the road.

Protesters arrived at the flat, some with head injuries, others bearing the circular contusions left by rubber bullets. Clouds of tear gas mingled with the black smoke of the tents that the army set aflame. The Square was deserted, but then soldiers and police forces also vanished and people flooded back in banging on shop shutters and railings and clapping rocks together. Within a few hours Liberation Square was even more packed than before.

What was the strategy of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF): to end the protests or merely enrage the crowd? As fighting continued on Monday, I spent the day at a field clinic set up in the Omar Makram Mosque on the south end of the Square, one of several emergency centres organised by protesters and dozens of medical volunteers. Supplies flooded in from anonymous donors including mountains of cotton, medications, medical equipment and blankets. People were preparing for a siege.

The wounded came in bursts, reflecting the ebb and flow of hostilities near the Ministry of the Interior. There were the usual young men riding a wave of anger and adrenalin, but also many in their 50s and 60s. Wounds became progressively more serious: doctors removed iron pellets like birdshot, and another kind of gas was being deployed, more irritating and with longer-lasting effects. "We are nothing to [the authorities]," said one young surgeon "only animals to be hunted down." By Tuesday, the death toll had exceeded 30.

Although parliamentary elections are scheduled for Monday, there has been little time for candidates to promote their agendas, except for Islamists factions who have been "campaigning" behind the scenes for years. While they were present on Friday, speaking out against the military's handling of the transition period, they seemed largely absent from the next three days of confrontation.

The Muslim Brotherhood wants elections to proceed, as do the SCAF generals. Several liberal candidates have withdrawn in protest in a strategic manoeuvre, some say, because they would have anyway done poorly at the polls. The ineffectual interim government led by Essam Sharaf has tendered its resignation although yesterday it was unclear if the SCAF would approve the move.

The revolution is coming to terms with the recognition that the SCAF, formerly viewed as saviours, is exploiting its newfound power. The repressed rage arising from decades of punitive rule is again evident, compounded by recent events when the army proved unable - or unwilling - to protect peaceful protests, including on October 9 when some 28 protesters, mostly Christians, were killed.

On Monday night, as news of Mr Sharaf's resignation swept the Square, the atmosphere hovered between determined and celebratory; candy floss and candied apples were being sold alongside gas masks, both the cheap tie-on surgical type and plastic ones made in China. The crowd cheered as fights raged just metres away.

By rejecting Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi's proposal to hold a referendum on civilian rule, activists expect concessions but what do they want? A civilian "salvation" government, but also safe parliamentary elections, a firm date for the SCAF's transfer of power, an end to military and police brutality, a return to the rule of law - in short, everything. But how can elections proceed with violent clashes between civilian and state forces spreading to cities and towns nationwide?

The SCAF will have to do something, and something large, having squandered so much of the public's trust in a few short months. The Egyptians occupying Tahrir Square are a diverse crowd, but they know they represent just a fraction of the population; the majority is at home, waiting, some say, for the army to definitely crush the demonstrations. State TV is on its side, portraying the protesters as lawless hooligans, and the economy has never looked so bad.

Yet the manifest will of just 3 to 5 per cent of a population has historically proved sufficient to create a revolutionary power shift. Once again, Egyptians are responding to oppressive tactics with an instinctual drive to overcome.


Maria Golia is author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt