Absolute Power

Egypt’s Military Commemorates ‘Martyrs’ It Gunned Down

Two years ago, the country’s security services massacred protesters during a violent week of activism. Now, the military is planning to honor the very ‘martyrs’ it shot to death.

11.19.13 10:45 AM ET

Days before the country’s first post-revolution parliamentary election in November 2011, central Cairo exploded in violence. Following yet another case of flagrant police brutality, protesters had taken to the streets to agitate against the security services and a military elite that had stepped in to rule after Hosni Mubarak’s downfall. In some of the fiercest rioting ever to have erupted in the capital, dozens of civilians were gunned down during several dark days of bloodshed and burning. At least 45 people lost their lives.

Fast forward two years, and the same military-backed apparatus is preparing to commemorate the very rioting it so brutally suppressed. A monument is being erected near the scene of the slaughter—Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a road running off Tahrir Square, close to the American University of Cairo—while the security forces who killed so many people have released a statement honoring the “martyrs of the revolution.”

If it sounds like the plot of a George Orwell novel, then the reality isn’t that far off. Just as Orwell’s whisky-soaked pigs in Animal Farm revised the revolutionary tenets of Animalism in a bid to reshape history, the Egyptian security forces are affecting to memorialize the very people they killed.

The irony has certainly not been lost on many activists. “Joke of the day,” tweeted one well-known blogger, who writes under the pen name The Big Pharaoh. “Police, when they were under army control, killed & maimed protesters in 2011. Tomorrow they’ll ‘remember’ Mohamed Mahmoud!”

The rioting that erupted in Mohamed Mahmoud Street on November 19 was particularly vicious. Several protesters were blinded by officers firing shotguns into their faces. Military police were caught on camera dumping bodies on garbage heaps.

The clashes—which began when the security services forcibly cleared a sit-in in Tahrir Square—have since assumed huge symbolic value among anti-government activists. Like the ‘Maspero Massacre’ a month earlier, or the Port Said soccer stadium disaster shortly afterwards, they form a grim marker in the chronology of Egypt’s faltering revolt.

There are fears that Tuesday’s commemoration may well descend into further violence. Both pro and anti-military groups have pledged to take to the streets, raising the prospect of confrontations. Meanwhile members of the Muslim Brotherhood, weak and reeling from a three month campaign of arrests and imprisonment, may also demonstrate.

All the while, the military’s armored personnel carriers stand guard around Tahrir Square—protecting a monument erected by the authorities to honor those injured in its own attack.” The Interior Ministry, in a televised statement on Sunday, warned that it would deal harshly with anybody threatening violence.

There  are some who argue that Tuesday’s ceremony is not necessarily incompatible with the memory of the protesters killed during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. Shehab Wagih, a spokesman for the Free Egyptians Party, said that the demonstrators who had fought in the November 2011 street battles 2011 were not all fighting against the police and government.

Rather, he told The Daily Beast, they were fighting against “certain actions” that had been taken by the police and government. “What they wanted was a more popular government. They wanted a police which treats people in a more humane way. My belief is that the security forces are trying to improve their performance and trying to be more humanitarian.”

But others point to Tuesday’s commemoration as simply the latest evidence that Egypt’s 2011 revolt is being thwarted by a resurgent police state.

Officials are due to sign off on a new law that criminalizes unplanned street protests. The law—drafted by the country’s military-backed interim government—will require police permission if demonstrators intend to hold a political rally involving any more than 10 people. In addition, the Interior Ministry—still a hated symbol of state oppression and brutality for many revolutionaries—will have sweeping powers to cancel demonstrations and designate “protest-free” zones around public institutions.

The proposed legislation arrives in tandem with another law that would effectively criminalize graffiti. During and after the revolt that toppled Mubarak there was an explosion of street art on Egypt’s streets. But this new item of legislation would outlaw the writing of “abusive language” on the walls of private or public buildings, with a possible four-year jail sentence.

Gamal Eid, the head of a Cairo-based human rights NGO, told The Daily Beast that he felt the new laws “confirmed the return of the police state.”

But Dr Magda Adly, director of an organization counseling victims of police brutality, argued that the police state never truly went away following Mubarak’s fall.  “Nothing changed after his regime fell,” she said. “We are still at the beginning and we still have a lot to do.”

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Rights groups note how cases of police brutality have continued unabated for the past three years. Prosecutors have often been unwilling to pursue cases of police torture through the courts, while comparatively few officials have been convicted over the killings of protesters since the Arab Spring.

And yet despite the outrage felt by many activists over the state’s attempt to appropriate the legacy of slain protesters, many Egyptians—weary of the perpetual insecurity and civil strife—appear to be acquiescing to the military’s new rule, following the coup that toppled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi over the summer.

Thanks to highly effective government propaganda —along with the blood-curling rhetoric of some Islamist leaders, deadly attacks by extremists on police and soldiers, and residual memories of the Brotherhood’s militant past—the dragnet detentions of Islamists have been met with little outcry, while the killing of protesters has provoked little in the way of widespread condemnation.

According to Karim Ennarah, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the public perception of the security services was turned on its head following the fall of Mohamed Morsi. “Something changed psychologically,” he argued. “After [Morsi’s fall] the public pressure on the police was less. Instead it became directed towards the Muslim Brotherhood.”