Egypt's junta: From 'One hand' to 'Liars', say revolutionaries

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Monday 30 Jan 2012

One year since protesters giddily snapped photos next to army tanks in Tahrir Square, calls now resound for ouster of Egypt's military rulers

Protesters attempt to erect an obelisk bearing the name of slain protesters of the Egyptian uprising and the year that followed. (Photo:AP)

A year after protesters proudly queued to take photos next to army tanks in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, their tone toward – and perceptions of – the military has profoundly changed. The self-proclaimed "guardians of the revolution" have fallen out of favour with Egypt's protesters, who now make calls for the overthrow of the military council and the prosecution of its head, Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

As army tanks rolled into Tahrir Square following the withdrawal of police forces on the 28 January 2011 “Friday of Rage,” protesters began to swell into the square, enthusiastically greeting army tanks chanting, "The army and the people are one hand."

Now, a year on, two images effectively capture the transformed relationship between revolutionaries and military. The first, a photo that circulated widely across social media during the 18-day uprising, is of a group of protesters sleeping with pillows and blankets beneath the treads of an army tank. The second – fast forward some eight months – is a video of an army personnel carrier (APC) ploughing through a Coptic Christian-led protest in front of the state-run television and radio building in Cairo’s Maspero district, crushing the bodies of protesters underneath the very same treads.

A grassroots activist campaign, dubbed Kazeboon or "Liars," has recently been launched in an effort to expose continued military violations against protesters and to offer a counter-narrative to the one espoused by state media, seen by its detractors as biased. The do-it-yourself initiative offers activists the opportunity to take matters into their own hands by screening the footage that Egypt’s ruling military junta does not want to be seen. 

Without any hierarchical structure, Kazeboon allows ordinary people to download videos of military abuses and show them in their own neighbourhoods.  Armed with projectors and an abundance of footage, these activists show images of army soldiers beating, torturing, shooting and running over protesters and then contrast them to the ruling junta’s televised denials.

"We were being shot at with live ammunition, bearing the engraved initials of the Arab Republic of Egypt," activist Lina Megahed stated during a press conference marking the launch of Kazeboon in late December. The campaign was launched shortly after the military led a deadly clampdown on the three-week-old Cabinet sit-in in mid-December that left 19 civilians dead. Footage of the violence, taken by citizen journalists and the traditional media, has survived, despite a concerted effort by the military to confiscate recording devices.

Amna Yassin, whose sons were arrested two days prior to the crackdown on unrelated charges, was surprised to discover that her sons were appearing on state television interviews, in which they confessed to having been paid by a man to instigate the violence at the Cabinet sit-in. The military council used this interview at a subsequent press conference as “proof” that the sit-in had been infiltrated by saboteurs.

Soon afterwards, rights lawyer Tarek El-Awady filed a complaint with the prosecutor-general's office, stating that the boys had been in custody during the incident and that they had been coerced into making false confessions. El-Awady soon found himself being summoned for questioning on charges of “inciting violence” against the military at the Cabinet sit-in.

The credibility of the ruling military council was dealt its first major blow less than one month after it took charge of the country, when on 9 March soldiers raided Tahrir Square and forcefully dispersed a sit-in. Unedited footage from that night shows military personnel chasing protesters into the side streets of downtown Cairo, beating and stunning them with electroshock weapons.

Following the 9 March crackdown, videos also emerged of protesters with clear signs of torture on their bodies. Bruised protesters recounted how the military had used rooms in the Egyptian Museum, located adjacent to the flashpoint square, to detain and torture them. Female protesters added their own experience to the developing narrative when they came out with disturbing testimonies of the military's use of "virginity tests" to humiliate their captors.

Adding to the counterargument vis-à-vis the military junta's self-proclaimed role of "guardians of the revolution" is a recent report by prominent human rights organisations Amnesty International that lists numerous forms of military violations in a 50-page report entitled "Broken Promises." The beginning of each section of the report documents a certain rights violation before citing an official military council statement "promising" to uphold the right in question.

The number and range of violations attributed to the military deepened perceptions among Egyptian protesters that the ruling military junta was waging an organised counter-revolution in order to protect its interests and protect the Mubarak regime "in the name of stability," as the Amnesty report states.

With the situation gradually developing into a standoff between revolutionaries and the military council, the revolution's progress is increasingly being gauged by the gradual concessions wrung from the junta after a series of small victories. On 21 January, the military council released 1959 detainees who had been summarily tried and sentence under military law. Among them was blogger Maikel Nabil, seen as post-Mubarak Egypt’s first prisoner of conscience, who had been slapped with a two-year jail sentence for "insulting the military." The releases were seen as a concession by military authorities and an attempt to appease protesters planning a million-man demonstration to coincide with the January 25 Revolution’s first anniversary.

On the eve of the anniversary, Tantawi addressed the nation in a televised speech in which he praised the role of the police and army over the past year and announced a partial lifting of Egypt’s longstanding emergency law – with an exception for acts of "thuggery." Many protesters, however, are not impressed.

The uprising's anniversary has seen heated demands for the military to step down. Furthermore, protesters are now lobbying for an immediate handover of power to a civil authority. Last week’s overwhelming turnout on 25 January appears to have further bolstered such calls. 

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