By Philip Whitfield
“The Egyptian voices will be heard, and if not heard, it will be only because the blood already shed has not been enough…”
With these words, Saad Zaghloul, one of 20th Century Egypt’s most celebrated nationalist revolutionaries, gave voice to the fierce, unrelenting aspirations of a people struggling to regain their freedom.
Many echo Zaghloul’s sense of righteous fury today, a year after the dawn of Egypt’s third revolution in less than a century. Far beyond anger at the glacially slow pace of prosecuting former president Hosni Mubarak and his apparatchiks, Egyptians are confronted on a daily basis with the unforgiving lead and steel of counter-revolutionary brutality, orchestrated by those with interests vested firmly in the resurrection of autocracy.
This trauma extends to serving members of the military, who find themselves torn between disobeying direct orders from their superiors to assault unarmed protesters, and violating their intrinsic loyalty to their countrymen. That such a situation has come to pass is a horrific demonstration of how so many of the January 25 Revolution goals have been assailed by the forces of reaction.
The fortitude of the Egyptian people, strengthened beyond measure by the turbulence and travails of the past year, is questioned only by those given to fanciful self-delusion, particularly in circles where Orientalist thinking still prevails. Bearing the enormous hardships of a punishing economic climate, Egyptians have remained steadfast in the oaths sworn in Tahrir Square, as witnessed by the enormous participation of voters in the parliamentary elections held between November 2011 and January of this year.
Yet, while the fidelity of the masses remains uncorrupted, the conduct of those whom today hold the reins of power in Egypt is far less commendable. Among the ever-increasing catalogue of crimes committed against ordinary Egyptians in the year since the revolution are acts that would have been shocking even under the Mubarak tyranny. From the Maspero killings in October of over two dozen protesters outside the Cairo headquarters of state-run radio and television, to the subjection of female protesters to so-called ‘virginity tests,’ the scourge of unpunished injustice has persisted in Mubarak’s absence.
This was exhibited most shamelessly in November when, before the eyes of the world, the plaintiff calls of unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere were answered with bullets and lethal gas. The fruits of this repression, uncannily reminiscent of scenes in January and February 2011, were dozens of dead civilians and hundreds of wounded, including those whose eyes were deliberately targeted by Ministry of Interior forces with the intention to blind.
Each of these profane offenses shares a basic similarity — they have all transpired under the watch of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body of senior military officers appointed by then-president Mubarak who have ruled Egypt extra-constitutionally since his resignation on February 11, 2011. In the exultant joy of Mubarak’s fall, through which Egypt avoided the fevered summer of bloodletting endured in neighboring Libya, a degree of latitude was extended to SCAF, whose training in the art of war had not prepared them for the political and bureaucratic duties of governance. Yet increasingly, cause has been given to view SCAF’s actions as having positioned it as the primary body frustrating the aims of the revolution and attempting to preserve as much of the decaying carcass of the old regime as possible.
Among the most telling of its acts was its attempt to permanently subvert civilian government through putatively non-negotiable provisos that would have granted SCAF a veto over powers central to the exercise of civilian rule, including the authority to declare war. Indeed, this flagrant challenge to the sovereignty of the people was one of the primary factors that provoked millions of Egyptians to return to the streets in protest in November, and represented yet another symptom of the inelegant and purposefully retrograde approach to reform of the constitution that has befouled the last year.
Just as with the rushed and thoroughly inadequate constitutional amendment referendum in March 2011, the intention was to force through lasting changes to Egypt’s system of government that would entrench the power of the rulers over the ruled. In the opinions of many, both at home and abroad, SCAF’s desired destination for the civilian revolution has been the transformation of 21st Century Egypt into a shoddy replica of the stratocracy of 20th Century Turkey.
That Turkey’s senior generals used their intrusion into politics to successfully execute four military coups against democratic governments between 1960 and 1997 is a fact not lost on the Egyptian people — nor perhaps on SCAF’s most enthusiastic and self-serving patron, the United States government, which continues to survey the process of popular will in Egypt with profound unease.
Unrepentantly using methods lifted directly from the dictators’ playbook, SCAF presents each of its actions as being in furtherance of the people’s wishes, in defense of the people’s security and in utter accordance with the objectives of the people’s revolution. Thus, even as political freedoms are denied, the revolution is being served. Even as peaceful protesters are murdered, or disabled permanently by the bullets of the Ministry of Interior, the revolution is being served. Even as the mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of the revolution’s martyrs are molested and sexually degraded in the streets, the revolution is being served.
It is revealing that under the rule of SCAF, an institution that would quiver in terrified horripilation at the mere thought of injuring a fair-skinned citizen of a Western state, purported servants of the people have been seen fit to preside over the attack, detention, torture and killing of their countrymen with utter insouciance. When the skulls of Egyptian civilians in Maspero are rendered planate under the wheels of tanks without punishment, one can only conclude that the abeyance of justice in Egypt has become even more profanely conspicuous.
Added to this host of transgressions are the alarming statistics showing that the number of military trials of civilians (in which defendants’ basic legal rights and constitutional protections are removed) under the 12 months of SCAF exceeds the total number of such trials during the presidencies of both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak combined. Even among the most zealous of libertarian advocates, there is the occasional grudging acceptance of the temporary of restriction on liberty in the interests of national security. Yet the seemingly inexorable increase in the use of military trials against ordinary citizens has no connection to the perseveration of law and order, or the protection of the state’s frontiers. On the contrary, routine resort to military trials is just another of the tactics of autocracy embraced with avidity by SCAF as a means of deterring legitimate, lawful dissent.
In this procession of repression, the discredited and despised police force, the agents of the very worst of Mubarak’s obscenities, have found a new lease of life. In the first months of the revolution, when the citizenry’s shackles of fear had been broken, the police retreated in comparative timidity avoiding commission of many of their habitual abuses. However, anyone observing in even the most casual fashion the almost carnal demonstration of police brutality during the protests of November would note that their self-assurance has returned ebulliently.
The same holds true for their paid accomplices outside of police force, who infiltrate crowds of protesters for the purposes of aiding police violence. Given the propensity for flagrant malefaction exhibited daily by what Egyptians have come to know as “the thugs,” both uniformed and in civilian garb, one cannot help but marvel at the fact that so many of those who committed crimes in service of Hosni Mubarak remain in their positions of privilege and power, permitted to greet each new day with new offences against their fellow citizens. It is all the more offensively ironic to note SCAF’s decree on January 24, that the reviled emergency law will now be lifted except for in instances of “thuggery” or “disturbance of peace” — an exception aimed squarely at protesters, rather than the police and the civilian bandits employed in their service.
Tamer O. Bahgat is a transnational lawyer with an International law firm in London, with experience in corporate and international law, with a focus in economic and constitutional reform. Khalid El-Sherif is a legal and policy professional with experience in regulatory reform, public and private international law, with a focus on development in the Arab world. Part 2 of this commentary will be published on January 26, 2012.