By Bianca Jagger
January 25, 2012 marked an historic date for Egypt. On this day last year millions of people stood in the now iconic Tahrir Square, peacefully demanding ‘Bread, Freedom and Dignity’. The number of protesters gathered in Tahrir, asking for their basic human rights, was unprecedented in Egypt’s history. It was not only the size of the assembled crowd that made this day different, but its diversity. During the 18 days of uprising people from all walks of life, religions, ideologies and ages stood together as one in the square for a common purpose: to end 30 years of brutal dictatorship.
On Feb. 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak finally capitulated to the pressure from the millions of Egyptian protesters and stepped down as President of Egypt, handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The atmosphere in Egypt in those days following was exhilarating, electrifying. The people had achieved a peaceful, leaderless revolution. Millions of jubilant Egyptians chanted together ‘The army and the people are one hand’.
I was skeptical when I heard this. Coming from Nicaragua and as a human rights defender who has witnessed the iron grip of military dictatorships all over Latin America, I was fearful that a military rule could never uphold the principles of human rights, democracy and civil liberties. Sadly, my fears were justified. It is evident that the army and the people were never ‘one hand.’ When the SCAF assumed power, they vowed to put an end to the emergency law, to relinquish power to an elected president within 6 months, among many other promises. None of these pledges were fulfilled. It was perhaps naïve to think that an army could peacefully protect and defend the rights of the civilian population.
The past year has been marked by brutal suppression of peaceful protests by army officials. Instead of protecting Egyptians, SCAF used extremely violent tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse protesters in Tahrir Square. They are responsible for the deaths of at least 41 civilians over the past year.
SCAF retained the Emergency Law, a thirty year old relic of the Mubarak regime which allows for abuse and detention of any citizen who is critical of the government. Today, Egypt’s penal code still contains articles that provide prison terms for any person whose speech it deems to be ‘insulting’ or ‘defaming’. According to Human Rights Watch, SCAF has tried more than 12,000 civilians under military tribunals since January 2011, some of whom are children under the age of 15. The Emergency law hinders all types of freedoms of expression in Egypt, and suppresses the freedom of all citizens to voice their opinion without fear of prosecution.
In recent days the military rulers have made a series of ‘concessions,’ intended to appease protestors and mislead the international community.
Yesterday, the day before the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s ruling general, announced the partial lifting of the Emergency Law with the exceptions of cases of ‘thuggery.’ As many human rights advocates point out, since the definition of ‘thuggery’ remains at the governments’ discretion, the law is, de facto, still in operation.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called it an ‘invitation to continued abuse… January 25 is the first anniversary of the day when Egyptians stood up together to demand an end to police abuse and the state of emergency… It is an insult to all those calling for a return to the rule of law to make excuses to keep this state of emergency, used abusively for so many years, in place.”
To the dismay of the protesters, the US has called the lifting of the Emergency Law a “major step toward the normalization of political life.’ According to State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, they are looking for clarification of that ‘little footnote,’ thuggery.
The US government has once again missed the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Egyptian people who are fighting for a democratic Egypt. The Obama administration is equivocating at the critical moment, just as he did in the days leading up to Mubarak’s fall.
Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post, “This is the classic pre-demonstration concession, or in this case an attempt at portraying something as a concession… the military’s whole intention is to give themselves power over the judiciary.”
Maikel Nabil, an activist who criticized the violations of SCAF on his blog, was detained on February 26th 2011 and sentenced to three years in prison. Nabil was released on January 24th 2012. In addition, Egypt’s military rulers have pledged that they will release almost two thousand other prisoners on the 26th of January. These releases – if they do actually take place — are another disingenuous bid by SCAF to pacify the Egyptian people and court favor with the international community. Filmmaker Aalam Wassef accused SCAF in the Guardian newspaper, on the 22nd of January, of ‘offering empty gestures in place of genuine reform. “It’s a political concession, though a very provocative one,” he said. “How dare they call it a pardon for Maikel when it is they, the generals, who should be requesting a pardon from the people?”
The pivotal role played by women in the January 25th revolution should not be underestimated. It was previously unheard of in Egyptian history. Thousands of women stood in Tahrir Square demanding freedom, equal rights and dignity. But their demand for equal rights has not been fulfilled under the military regime. The average representation of women in government in Arab nations is 13 percent, only 2 percent of the newly elected Egyptian parliament are women.
A report published by Nazra for Feminist Studies documents how the SCAF is trying to stop women from demonstrating and fighting for their human rights, by using the same tactics used by the Mubarak regime: sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse. There have been countless well documented accounts of these horrific abuses of women by the military regime over the past year. (Part II will run on Saturday Feb. 4).
On Nov. 25, 2011, human rights activist and journalist Mona El-Tahawy was brutalized and sexually harassed by SCAF police, then detained for twelve hours without medical care. She suffered from two broken hands, and multiple injuries all over her body. El-Tahawy recounts “Five or six men surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count of how many hands tried to get into my trousers.”
The abuse of Mona at the hands of police was barbaric. Tragically this treatment was not an exception. Until now, women cannot demonstrate for their rights peacefully in Egypt without a constant fear of being sexually harassed by SCAF police. The footage of the ‘woman in the blue bra’ — who was stripped and brutally beaten by army soldiers, then dragged helplessly along the ground — was unspeakable, and caused outrage all over the world.
Bianca Jagger is a Nicaraguan-born social and human rights advocate and a former actress and model. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BiancaJagger This article is published with permission from the author. It was first published in The Huffington Post.