10 questions Egyptians could not answer in 2011

and Zeinab Gundy , Saturday 31 Dec 2011

In unprecedented fashion, 2011 was the year of a revolution that sparked intense political debate among millions of ordinary in Egypt; but for many, several questions remain unanswered


For Egyptians, 2011 was the year of momentous political change. Starting with The Two Saints Church bombing in Alexandria on New Year's Eve, which left many wondering to what extent Mubarak's regime was using the Coptic minority to distract people's attention from its own corruption, then the revolution, the year opened a field of political debate that for decades was consider a luxury few could afford.

Political discussion took over not only the media but the streets, coffee shops, bus stations, work places and every other place where two or more people found themselves in proximity.

Not all political discussion led to answers. Ahram Online reviews 10 of the major questions many Egyptians could not answer in 2011. These questions reflect the terrain of political developments that engulfed the country.

1. Who is responsible for the Two Saints Church bombing last New Year’s Eve?

The terrorist bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria that took place on New Year’s Eve 2010, leaving 24 dead and many injured, remains an unsolved mystery for Egyptians.

Several Salafists and hardline Islamists were arrested as suspects in the wake of the attacks and brutally tortured by police. One of those detained, Sayed Belal, died as a result and was buried in secret on 5 January, becoming the most famous victim of torture after Khaled Said, who was killed by police in June 2010. Despite the violent police reaction, those behind the attacks were never identified.

Following the 18-day uprising, a retired police officer, Mahmoud Abd El-Naby, claimed Egypt's State Security was behind the bombings. He alleged that a secret political organisation formed by former interior minister Habib El-Adly in 2000 to support the regime and silence any opposition to the Gamal Mubarak succession plan was behind the bombings.

The Two Saints Church bombings came after Egypt witnessed a rise in sectarian clashes. It also followed violent attacks by the state on Copts in the district of Omraneya, allegedly triggered by illegal construction within a church. Escalating sectarian tensions and increasing discrimination against Egypt's Christians triggered public debate following the ousting of Mubarak with former prime minister Essam Sharaf pledging legislation against religious discrimination. No such laws were passed to date.

2. Who killed protesters during the 18-day uprising?

So far, no one has been held accountable for the death of hundreds of Egyptian protesters during the mass protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Hundreds of young Egyptians died in clashes with the dictator's police in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and other cities across the country.

Again on 2 February, during the infamous attack on Tahrir Square in Cairo, now dubbed the “Battle of the Camel,” many more protesters lost their lives after an organised demonstration, supposedly composed of “pro-Mubarak” protesters, stormed Tahrir with sticks, knives camels and horses.

The battle went on for two consecutive days during which Tahrir demonstrators were also attacked by rocks and Molotov cocktails. Snipers also stood on rooftops and surrounding bridges using live ammunition against anti-Mubarak demonstrators. Until today, although many have been accused of organising the “Battle of the Camel”, including former National Democratic Party (NDP) members and former ministers of Mubarak's regime, no-one has been convicted.

The Ministry of Interior also denied allegations that snipers who fired at protesters on the night of 2 February were linked to the ministry. Both former interior minister Habib El-Adly and current minister Mansour El-Eissawy, appointed after the ouster of Mubarak, issued statements denying that ministry snipers fired on protesters.

3. Did Mubarak order the army to kill protesters? 

A statement made by head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, led many to assume that Mubarak gave orders to the military to shoot at protestors during the 18-day revolt that led to his ouster.

Tantawi claimed during a speech given after the military council took power that the military “refused orders to shoot” and thus should be considered the protector of the revolution. In his statement, Tantawi did not specify who gave the orders, leading people to assume it could only have been Mubarak. However, during Mubarak’s trial, Tantawi told the court on 24 September 2011 that the former president never gave the military orders to shoot at protesters.

4. What is the army's stand on the revolution?

The SCAF has presented itself from the moment it took over power as the “protector of the revolution,” claiming that military leaders defied orders to shoot protesters.

When military tanks and cars were first seen on the streets of Cairo, they were met by chants and cheers from hundreds of thousands of anti-Mubarak protesters. The demonstrators chanted “The people and army are one hand,” as they stood on military tanks and took pictures with soldiers. However, only a few days into the revolution, testimonies started to emerge of military torture. Several alleged they had been detained and tortured by the military in buildings surrounding Tahrir Square, including the Egyptian Museum. 

Testimonies also included stories of the military forcing the detained to chant for Mubarak. Shortly after the ouster of Mubarak, a campaign against military trials of civilians was launched, revealing that thousands of Egyptians were being arrested from the streets, either for breaking curfews or on accusations of “thuggery” and crime, and were sentenced in military courts. A website called Tahrir Diaries was set up to reveal the details of different cases, showing that many of those arrested were activists detained for political reasons.

By March, the military also started intervening violently to end sit-ins and protests. Testimonies emerged of fatal shootings or some beaten to death by the military during attacks on activists. The first visually documented violent attack was in October when military vehicles were seen running over Coptic demonstrators protesting against discrimination near the Maspero television building.

Videos showing the brutal violence spread on social media sites. Some protesters were also reported to have died from gunshot wounds. A military attack on protesters near the Cabinet in December left many dead or wounded, of which most deaths were caused by live ammunition. Videos showing military personnel brutally beating and shooting demonstrators, as well as stripping one woman near naked, circulated on social media sites and private satellite channels.

Calls are currently increasing for a swift handover of power to a civil government. Many argue that the ruling SCAF is simply the old regime.

5. Should the constitution be drafted before elections or should elections be held first?

A question that bothered millions of Egyptians before and after the constitutional amendments referendum in March 2011 was whether it would be better to hold elections before the drafting of a new constitution or to draft the constitution before elections. Two camps, mainly from liberal and Islamists parties, debated for months before a date for elections was finally announced.

Thereafter, the debate shifted to the supra-constitutional principles document proposed by former deputy prime minister for political affairs Ali El-Selmi. The El-Selmi document enraged not only Islamist powers but other political powers in the country, as it gave the army sweeping powers and near complete independence, free from scrunity.

The Friday mass protests the day before intense clashes broke out in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November were against the El-Selmi document. The following week, El-Selmi resigned, but questions still hover over the role of the military in the coming period.

6. Yes or No to constitutional amendments?

The constitutional amendments proposed by a council of legal experts and put to a referendum 19 March stirred much debate in Egypt. While most revolutionary political groups called for a No vote, former NDP figures, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement campaigned for a Yes vote. The debate swiftly degenerated, and was presented as a choice between the Islamist camp, campaigning for a Yes vote, and the secular camp, campaigning for a "No". The majority of Egypt's Coptic Christians also voted for a No, compounding the sectarian tinge.

The reasons given for each stand were not only related to the content of the amendments, but to their limitations, consequences, timing and the identity of the council that formulated them.

The No camp argued that the 1971 Constitution needed to be completely redrafted, and that voting Yes would imply an indirect acceptance of roughly 200 other articles within it. The Yes camp believed that the amendments were only a temporary measure and as such did not need to include all the changes raised by the revolution regarding the constitution, as it would be completely redrafted after parliamentary and presidential elections.

This point proved to be the most contentious; those opposing the amendments said that a redrafted constitution would not be representative. Most of the No camp advocated drafting a new constitution before elections, arguing that elections would only bring a revamped version of the NDP and the Brotherhood, who would then be able to shape the new constitution.

Some of the Yes camp argued the opposite: that the amendments would allow the military to leave power for an elected parliament to write a new constitution. Leaving the SCAF to form a committee to draft a new constitution was seen as non-democratic by the Yes camp.

The majority of Egypt voted Yes. 

7. What is a civil state?

During the first 18 days of the revolution many people were calling for a civil state. However, after the ouster of Mubarak, the definition of "civil" started to differ from one political group to another. For liberals, civil meant a non-religious, secular state, while for Islamists civil meant a non-military state.

The question took a new edge when ultra-conservative Islamist clerics declared that a civil state was against Sharia law and Islam, warning of the negative consequences of separating religion from the state.

The debate about a civil state was brought up again with discussion of the supra-constitutional principles document that gave the army independent power, making the choice between the civil state and military state, versus the religious state and civil state, for some the primary choice. The debate about a civil state is sure to cause more heated discussion in 2012, especially with the rise of Islamists in parliament, as well as the continuing rule of the SCAF and the military in Egypt.

8. Are sit-ins and protests affecting the economy?

Despite a backdrop prior to the revolution of sit-ins and strikes, through 2009 and 2010 especially, one question people began to ask themselves after the revolution was whether sit-ins and strikes were harming the economy, as often portrayed in the media. The question opened debate about the rights of workers and employees, as well the right to protest.

The debate was intense, especially in light of a law issued after the revolution criminalising protests and sit-ins that harm production in Egypt. Though the law was largely not implemented on the ground, NGOs and labour activists considered it an attempt to weaken the revolution.

9. When should the SCAF hand over power?

Should the ruling military council hand over power to an elected president, or to the speaker of parliament? Should political forces wait until June 2012 when presidential elections are scheduled or demand an immediate handover of power? Such questions intensified after recent clashes between protesters and the armed forces, and amid the increasing role the army has been playing in the country’s political life. The question of when the SCAF should hand over power and to whom will continue to be one of the main questions that Egyptians will discuss in 2012.

10. Who is the "third party" blamed for killing protesters?

Another question that has engaged people has been, "Who is the third party blamed for killing protesters?" In violent clashes between protesters and security forces since the fall of Mubarak where 100 people lost their lives, the SCAF and officials have accused "third parties" of igniting violence and killing protesters, denying the use of live ammunition.

And it has not only been the military rulers; lawyers representing Mubarak, former interior minister El-Adly and police officers accused of killing protesters in the early days of the revolution, also put the blame on an unknown "third party". For months, Egyptian security agencies have failed to tell the public who that third party is.

Interesting year, wasn't it?

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