November 23, 2011

The military’s brutality has brought crowds to Tahrir Square. They can’t dismiss us as a minority any more.

At a Cairo morgue last night, families clung together waiting to receive the bodies of 22 young protesters shot dead in Tahrir Square earlier that day. One of the women cried: “Come and see what they have done to our country’s youth!” Shehab, her dead son, was 21 and a university student, typical of the youth activists who led the January protests.

There is a strong sense of déjà vu in Tahrir Square, harking back to the protests in January — the constant sound of teargas shots and sirens, growing outrage over attacks on protesters and a gritty determination not to give ground. But this time, the chants are against the military.

Protesters took to the square to oppose the military’s attempt to consolidate its rule through a set of supra-constitutional principles that would prevent civilian oversight of its budget, legislation and defence decisions. The police responded with sticks, shooting teargas and rubber bullets, and then live ammunition into the crowd. The bodies of protesters shot dead started reaching hospitals, and the death toll was 28 by Monday.

What the military has failed to understand is that a core of Egyptians lost their fear in January. They now insist on real reform: democracy and social justice and an end to rights abuses. Images of police dragging lifeless bodies to the side of the road went viral online and were broadcast on all private TV stations. Thousands more took to the square, and this time they were calling for an end to military rule.

For months, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had been dismissive of activists who kept returning to the square to protest. They tried thousands before military tribunals on charges of thuggery. Then they accused the April 6 Youth Movement of being foreign agents, opened investigations into foreign funding of human rights groups, and jailed activists and journalists for insulting the military.

These developments were not a surprise. The first case I documented of torture by the military since the Tahrir Square protests began was on February 2 and these brutal tactics have continued. The recent killings are part of an established pattern. We saw this again on March 9, when military officers arrested 190 protesters, tortured them in the grounds of the Egyptian Museum and subjected seven of the women to forced “virginity tests”; and again on October 9, when military vehicles ran over 13 protesters and shot 14 more.

Despite this brutality, it seemed that the military was winning the public relations battle. It had successfully portrayed itself as the saviour of the revolution from that day in January when it refused to fire on protesters. It had won support from all political parties for a roadmap set out without consultation, and it had received international expressions of support, most significantly from the United States, for its “management” of the transition.

Approval ratings of over 80 per cent gave the SCAF the confidence to continue with Mubarak-style authoritarianism, despite its failure to carry out substantive institutional reforms and its delays in plans for elections to a weakened parliament.

But this week’s atrocities have attracted unexpected scrutiny and re-energised aspirations for a genuine transition to civilian rule.

The growing numbers in the square confirm that there is no way back. There are no easy fixes. The military has for months pretended that the civilian government has some independence, while every Egyptian knows that the Prime Minister has no power to make decisions without SCAF approval. These protests loudly proclaim a breakdown in trust in the military. They also reflect public outrage at the continuing military repression and at economic and political paralysis.

The SCAF needs to understand that it cannot ignore the demands of Tahrir protesters and dismiss them as a non-representative minority. The time has come for a genuine transition to civilian rule, led by a broad-based national consensus government.

*Heba Fatma Morayef is the Egypt researcher at Human Rights Watch*