Published December 1, 2011
On the evening of October 10, a funeral procession of more than 20,000 people marched down Ramses Street, a main thoroughfare in downtown Cairo, loudly calling for the end to military rule in Egypt. Chants of “Down with the Marshal” echoed in the night sky, in reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the de facto ruler of the country following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. On their shoulders they carried the coffins of several Coptic Christians killed a day earlier by the Egyptian army. Military police backed by plainclothes thugs had attacked a peaceful demonstration with live ammunition and by driving armored personnel carriers at high speeds into the crowd in a shocking display of wanton violence. In total, at least twenty-six people were killed and more than 300 wounded.
The incident was the bloodiest act of repression by the Egyptian army since it took the reins of power on February 11, and it pulled into sharp focus a struggle that has been steadily growing against the ruling military junta in post-Mubarak Egypt.
“It makes the battle easier when your enemy shows its real face,” says Mona Seif, twenty-five, a rights activist and a founding member of the No to Military Trials of Civilians campaign. “The horrible part about it is that it gets more bloody, and the confrontation with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gets more real.”
During the eighteen-day uprising that ousted Mubarak, the army enjoyed widespread praise as “the protector of the revolution” and was applauded for not opening fire on protesters—a dubious accolade in and of itself. Chants of “The people, the army, one hand” were ubiquitous in Tahrir Square. In the days and weeks that followed, any criticism of the military generally, or the Supreme Council in particular, was widely denounced as heresy. But the afterglow has since faded away, in large part due to the military council’s repressive policies, which have been met with heavy resistance by revolutionary forces in their ongoing struggle to overthrow the regime.
One of the most striking examples of the turning of the tide of public opinion is the grassroots campaign against the Supreme Council’s widespread use of military trials. Over the past eight months, nearly 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts—more than the total number during Mubarak’s thirty-year reign. According to Human Rights Watch, military trials “do not protect basic due process rights and do not satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law.”
When a small group of activists, led by Seif, first spoke out against the use of military trials in March, they were largely ignored. “We had nearly zero media coverage in the beginning. We were completely marginalized,” Seif says. When they continued to press the issue, pursuing an online campaign against the use of military trials, they were vilified. “We were called traitors. They said we were trying to turn people against the army,” says Seif. “And this was coming from a lot of the same people who were active participants in the revolution from the beginning.”
The No to Military Trials group continued its work, meticulously documenting cases, collecting evidence, recording testimonies, assembling a group of volunteer lawyers to advocate for detainees, building a mailing list, distributing pamphlets, and posting videos online to spread awareness. Within a few months, they succeeded in catapulting the issue from the margins of the activist community to the forefront of the political sphere. The practice is now widely condemned in the mainstream media by all major political figures, parties, and civil society groups in the country. While the Supreme Council has not summarily ended the use of military trials, it has substantially cut back on the number of people referred to military courts and has instituted a much more structured and open legal proceeding in the face of mounting public pressure.
The use of military tribunals is just one of many policies deployed by the Supreme Council in its attempt to suppress dissent and exercise control during the transitional period. They have tortured detainees, extended and broadened the Emergency Law, intimidated and censored the press, and issued a ban on protests and strikes.
“I’m not disappointed because I didn’t have high hopes for Mubarak’s generals or the transitional government to start with,” says Hossam El-Hamalawy, thirty-four, a prominent journalist, labor organizer, and activist with the Revolutionary Socialists. “I belong to those who, on the twelfth of February, urged Egyptians to continue with the revolution, not necessarily in Tahrir but actually to take Tahrir to the factories and university campuses. If we judge the revolution according to that standard, then you will see we are actually progressing, not regressing.”
In September, workers across multiple sectors of the economy began striking in massive numbers not seen in Egypt since the last few days of the eighteen-day uprising, when organized labor joined the revolution and dealt the decisive blow that toppled Mubarak from power. Workers reinstated their demands for economic justice, including higher wages, job security, improved working conditions, and the removal of corrupt officials and remnants of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
In defiance of the anti-strike law, doctors staged sit-ins at hospitals, transit workers largely paralyzed Cairo’s bus fleet, air traffic controllers temporarily shut down Cairo International Airport, university professors and students staged campus occupations, and schoolteachers closed down tens of thousands of schools—the first collective action by Egypt’s educators since 1951.
In August, the General Federation of Trade Unions—an organization loyal to the state that, for decades, served to stifle worker dissent by condemning strikes and informing on labor leaders—was dissolved under mounting pressure from the labor movement. Meanwhile, the number of independent trade unions in Egypt grew from just four when the revolution began on January 25 to more than ninety within a matter of months.
But not everyone is ready to break with the military. In October, thirteen political parties signed on to an agreement with the military council that sparked broad criticism among their rank and file. The agreement outlines a timetable for presidential elections that would effectively keep the military in power through 2013—a full two years longer than their original pledge to hand power back to a civilian authority within six months of taking control of the country.
More egregiously, the agreement includes no concrete promise to lift the draconian Emergency Law, in place since 1981, which denies the right of assembly and gives security forces virtually unrestrained powers of search, arrest, and detention. The agreement also called for party leaders to “declare their full support to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” and thank the body for “protecting the revolution and working on handing over the power to the people.”
“To sign on to this is to put your stamp of approval on the military’s program, and that program is horrendous,” says Hani Shukrallah, a prominent member of the Social Democratic Egyptian Party, who handed in his resignation to his party because its leader had signed the agreement. “What this document says is that you are willing to betray the demands of the revolution for party interests.”
A number of revolutionary groups are mobilizing the resistance. Chief among them is the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the largest and most prominent youth organizations in the country. The group was founded in 2008 to support a planned strike by textile mill workers in the industrial Nile Delta town of Mahalla El Kubra on April 6 of that year. The strike was brutally suppressed by the Mubarak regime but the group continued to organize as a resistance movement in the years that followed and was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the January 25 revolution.
The group is launching a “black circle, white circle” political awareness campaign. Aiming to prevent former regime members from winning seats in parliament, the group is compiling a list of candidates with ties to the now-dissolved National Democratic Party or with histories of corruption, which will comprise the “black circle.” Meanwhile, in the “white circle,” rather than endorse specific candidates, the group will list a set of qualifications and characteristics they hope to see in elected officials.
The April 6 Youth Movement has also worked to organize with other grassroots groups to support continued street demonstrations during the transitional period. They fully participated in the second mass sit-in in Tahrir Square that began on July 8 and lasted more than three weeks. Many point to that mobilization as having pressured the military council into finally putting Mubarak on public trial on August 3 on charges of corruption and conspiracy to kill protesters. In mid-July, the Supreme Council singled out the April 6 Youth Movement in a statement that accused the group of driving a wedge between the army and the people. General Hassan El-Roweini, a member of the military council and the head of the Central Military Zone Command, also charged in a television interview that the group was receiving foreign funding. The irony of the Egyptian military, which receives $1.3 billion annually from the United States, accusing protesters of foreign funding was lost on the ruling generals.
“The military council is very afraid of our influence and that is why they leveled those accusations at us,” says Mahmoud Afifi, a spokesperson for the April 6 Youth Movement. “In our view, the revolution is not moving on the right path and we hold the military council fully responsible for what is happening.”
Resistance to the Supreme Council’s rule may now be entering a new phase following the army’s brutal crackdown on the crowd of largely Coptic demonstrators in front of the state television and radio building, known as Maspero, on October 9. It marks the first time soldiers are directly implicated in the killing of protesters. The army responded by claiming military police had come under attack first and by insisting that they exercised the highest level of self-restraint. They denied there was any evidence the army killed demonstrators despite clear video footage and eyewitness testimony to the contrary.
In the wake of the attack, large demonstrations and vigils for those killed have filled the streets in and around downtown Cairo. Protesters compare one of the Maspero victims, Mina Daniel—a young revolutionary and member of the Socialist Popular Alliance who was wounded in Tahrir during the eighteen-day uprising—to Khaled Said, the twenty-eight-year-old businessman who was beaten to death by policemen in Alexandria in 2010 and became a symbol of police brutality that helped to spark the Egyptian revolution.
“We have to rise up again,” says Amal Sharaf, thirty-six, a founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement. “If we realize the military is just another face of Mubarak, and we are really ready to resist—to go through this again—I am hopeful. If not, then we’re done.”