Troops have killed some 60 demonstrators over the past six weeks during protests in Egypt’s capital city Cairo. Snipers stationed in buildings around Tahrir Square have shot activists in cold blood.
For decades the Egyptian state has arrested, imprisoned, tortured and murdered with impunity. But when Egyptians removed dictator Hosni Mubarak in February they demanded change.
The country’s generals replied with beatings, tear gas and live ammunition. They hired thugs to rain bricks on demonstrators and sent troops to attack those daring to criticise military rule.
In the wake of Mubarak’s departure Egypt is ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf). The generals say they are defending Egypt against foreign plots “to weaken the nation”.
According to General Said Abbas, “There is an invisible hand in the square causing a rift between the army and the people.”
But the only “hand” at work in Qasr al-Aini Street last weekend was that of troops and police who assaulted democracy activists at an occupation outside the government buildings.
Security forces beat young protestors before launching a ferocious attack on demonstrators who had come from all over Cairo to support the occupation.
Troops hurled rocks and fired rubber bullets at point blank range. Meanwhile groups of men in plainclothes threw rubble and panes of glass from ten storey buildings onto those below.
Their targets were the people of the city—overwhelmingly the same working class Egyptians who rose against Mubarak earlier this year. After three days of fighting this week the army had still not removed them—testimony to determination that has come from months of struggle.
Scaf has shown its ruthless determination to hang on to power. But at the same time it has demonstrated its weakness. Time after time, tens of thousands have gather to oppose the generals.
One placard held by a woman in Qasr al-Aini this week summed up the resolve of protesters. Referring to two murdered activists, it declared, “They killed Khalid. They killed Mina. Every bullet makes us stronger.”
The street battles show all the strength and ingenuity of people still invigorated by the struggles of the past year and eager for further change.
Unarmed young men show astonishing courage to return troops’ volleys of bricks and live fire. The injured are rushed through crowds on motorcycle “ambulances” to field hospitals at which doctors give emergency aid.
This week the Qasr al-Dubara church near Tahrir Square again opened its doors to provide hospital space. This has confounded sceptics who predict increased tensions between Muslims and Christians. Most of those treated were Muslims.
Women are leading participants in the protests. Troops seized, stripped and beat female protesters earlier this week. The newspaper Al Tahrir carried photographs of an especially savage assault, prompting a further furious protest marched through central Cairo.
More than 10,000 demonstrators, most women, came from across the city. They carried placards reading, “Down with military rule. The military are liars.” There were further demonstrations in Alexandria and the southern city of Assiut.
The army’s attacks come while Egypt is still in the middle of a general election. The election has been a messy affair so far. There have been many local complaints about unfair practices by candidates and parties, and some interventions by troops and police.
But compared to the violent, rigged ballots of the Mubarak era, this has so far been a relatively open election. Nevertheless, many democracy activists say the election should not have gone ahead while troops are murdering people in the streets.
The Muslim Brotherhood are likely to be the winners of the election. Its 35 per cent vote in the first phase of the election alarmed many people inside and outside Egypt. They predict an intolerant Islamist parliament which will introduce religious laws and increase sectarian tensions.
But an incoming government is likely to face immediate, pressing problems which could inhibit any such programme. Egypt’s foreign reserves have almost halved over the past year. Income from tourism has fallen by a third.
Images of army assaults on women in Cairo—which have been flashed around the world—are likely to lead to a further reduction in visitors.
It is certain that a new government will introduce austerity measures. And it is equally certain that these will be resisted by a population in no mood for cuts to food subsidies or education budgets.
Strikes have recently resumed in key industries such as transport and cement. Workers want jobs and unpaid bonuses. Their new independent unions, built from the grassroots, will not endorse calls for industrial peace and national sacrifice.
Meanwhile Scaf has its own problems with the Brotherhood. Despite organising elections to favour Islamist parties, the generals refuse to surrender control over key areas of the economy and the political agenda.
They want to determine the military budget and to decide defence and foreign policy—to act, as before, as an authoritarian military regime.
The revolution has far to go. Despite their brutality, the generals have failed to stop street protests or strikes. Now they are wrestling with their obvious allies, the Brotherhood.
Meanwhile millions of people demand job security, a minimum wage, union rights, safety for women, political reform—and an end to rule by Scaf. Almost a year ago Egyptians removed the dictator. Now they are grappling with the dictatorship.
Phil Marfleet is professor of international development at the University of East London and has recently returned from Cairo