In Deeply Polarized Egypt, Revolution's Social Justice Slogans are Seldom Heard
CAIRO—Commemorations for the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Egypt-Israel war were supposed to be a high point for the military-backed government. The war, known in Israel as the Yom Kippur War and in the Arab world as the October War, is considered a victory in Egypt. This year, the traditional ceremonies were supposed to be an occasion to demonstrate national unity behind the country's newly-installed leaders. But with the army cracking down on anti-military protests even as Islamist militants continue to carry out attacks in the Sinai, the reality of a polarized population was all too apparent.
“They are trying to present that everything is fine since the coup,” Ahmed Kamal, a Muslim Brotherhood youth leader, said of the military celebrations. Active in the anti-coup alliance and organizer of the Rabaa sit-in, where supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi were massacred by security forces on August 14, Kamal says the goal of the protests are to show a new wave of mass discontent since the crackdown.
On Tuesday, students demonstrated against the government to protest security forces killing over 6o people during anti-coup demonstrations on the weekend.
Tensions are high now, with another round of violence coming after several weeks of relative calm. Anti-military protesters launched demonstrations on Friday with the intention of reaching Tahrir Square, the iconic symbol of Egypt’s January 25, 2011 revolution. In response, the army locked down the city.
Checkpoints went up around downtown as soldiers, police and armored personnel carriers filled city squares. Thousands of protesters rallied in Cairo’s Rabaa district while security forces used live automatic fire against anti-coup demonstrations marching in Cairo’s downtown. Four people were killed by the time the curfew came into effect and demonstrations melted away, but these were the opening shots of the war’s anniversary.
On Sunday a far bloodier scene ensued, with security forces killing at least 57 people as anti-army protesters clashed with both security forces and pro-army demonstrators. People marching towards Ramses Square, where security forces massacred civilians on August 16, were met with a hail automatic fire. Military helicopters and jets circled the city as part of the anniversary celebrations.
In Dokki, a neighborhood close to the city's downtown area, protests became chaotic in the face of army gunfire and mob attacks. Among the dead and injured several journalists were arrested and by evening the neighborhood was too dangerous for foreign journalists.
Pro-army demonstraotrs filled the army parade grounds near Rabaa. They also gathered in Tahrir Square, with state television broadcasting while foreign journalists were largely denied access. Security forces used tear gas and live bullets to prevent the thousands participating in anti-coup marches from reaching Tahrir.
In recent months and weeks the army has committed a rash of human rights violations against its own people, and has a long history of propping up authoritarian leaders while maintaining private ownership over vast tracts of the economy. But in a country where the army is revered by all patriots, even leaders of the anti-coup protests refrain from criticizing it as an institution.
“We are with our national army but this army is being betrayed by its leaders,” said Kamal. He went on to explain that the protests were meant to target the generals. “The people of Egypt are against this deviation being carried out by the leaders of the army,” he added.
Since the protests of last weekend, security forces have carried out a new wave of arrests on political opposition. The government is also in the process of seizing the Muslim Brotherhood's assets. Its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, is now threatened with dissolution. The government also seems to be in the process of revoking the Brotherhood's recently won NGO status. For those who support the army’s ousting of the Morsi government, these measures and continuing military trials of civilians is justified as a means of fighting terror.
“Now there is a war on terrorism and so some people need military trials,” says Eman El Mahdy, a spokesperson for the Egyptian social movement Tamarod (Rebel). The youth movement, which sees itself as the second wave of the January 25, 2011 revolution, spearheaded the mass June 30 demonstrations against Morsi, with hundreds of thousands calling upon the government to resign for its failure to realize the goals of the revolution.
For Tamarod, which has been brought into the interim government, the January 2011 revolutionary slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” is a distant echo. Instead, they chant slogans that are nationalist, pro-army and anti-Muslim Brotherhood. They made their position clear during the October 6 pro-army demonstrations.
“We want to tell the world we support the army. We refuse to let the Brotherhood destroy [the Military’s] image in front of the world,” said El Mahdy, sitting in the movement’s offices just blocks from Tahrir Square. “We want to show that the people and the army are one hand,” added a young woman in a hijab who described herself as a Nasserite. She was re-appropriating the revolutionary slogan one heard in Tahrir during the final days of the 18-day uprising that began on January 25, 2011, when the army chose not to support Hosni Mubarak.
When security forces suppressed anti-military protests over this past weekend, protesters inverted the slogan of the revolution to reflect the changing context. As the armed forces attack, the demonstrators chanted “the army and police are one dirty hand” (instead of “the army and the people are one hand”).
Depending on who is offering the analysis, the October 6 protests, counter protests and crackdown were intended either to exploit patriotism as a means of papering over repression under military rule, or to generate a new wave of revolt against the July 3 coup. But as polarization between supporters of the army and the ousted Morsi government intensifies, one does not hear much about the social and political rights that originally brought millions of people to the streets in January 2011.