9 April, 2011: When the SCAF, people went their separate ways

Ekram Ibrahim , Monday 9 Apr 2012

A look back at the day when the SCAF's image as guardian of the revolution gave way to a more cynical view of Egypt's new military rulers

April 8 army officers
Army officers chant against ruling military council in Tahrir protest on 8 April, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

"The army and people are not one hand,” a group of Egyptians chanted on 9 April, 2011. It was one of the very first times that chants against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) were heard since the eruption of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution.

The chants came in response to another refrain – "The army and people are one hand" – which had been liberally repeated by protesters and soldiers in the months after longstanding president Hosni Mubarak handed over executive power to the SCAF.

The anti-SCAF chants were first heard in Tahrir Square, only hours after army personnel opened fire on protesters demonstrating in the square in the early hours of 9 April, 2011, leaving one dead and several injured.

“A glimpse of the shifting narrative between the people and the SCAF was displayed after the first Egyptian was killed at the hands of the army,” Nadine Abdel Wahab, a member of the "Askar Kazeboon" campaign, told Ahram Online. Askar Kazeboon ("Military Liars") represents a group of volunteer activists who use photos and videos of violent crackdowns by the army on peaceful protesters to document rights violations committed by Egypt's ruling junta.

After the failure of revolutionary demands to be realised during the 18-day Tahrir Square uprising, hundreds of thousands of protesters again converged on the square for what they called “Cleansing Friday” on April 8, 2011. A group of uniformed army officers joined the protests, with some even jumping atop the square's main stage to publicly endorse the people's demands and call for SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to step down.

Protesters on 8 April were boiling, especially since the demonstration followed a 19 March constitutional referendum, which many critics saw as a legal trick by the SCAF to maintain its authority, refer civilians to military courts, refrain from sending Mubarak – or members of his family – to trial and ignore a spate of attacks on Egypt's Coptic minority.

"Until this moment, people had logical concerns about the SCAF – but not emotional ones," Abdel Wahab told Ahram Online.

Usually, emotions are what drive people to get out of their chairs and take to the streets to protest against actions and policies they oppose. Before the revolution, many Egyptians knew of police abuses, yet very few talked about it. Only after Khaled Saeed, a young Alexandrian man, was brutally beaten to death by police and his pictures were transmitted all over social media websites, was the issue addressed by the masses.

Accordingly, the use of live ammunition, the murder of a defenceless citizen, the beating and injuring of dozens of people and detention of many others, and the army officers that joined the protest all served as emotional catalysts against the SCAF.

 Yet the situation remained confusing to the majority of Egyptians, who weren't sure whether to believe the army defectors or not, especially in light of rumours at the time that the officers in question were actually paid citizens in army uniform. "I felt confused," Abdel Wahab said. "The army officers should have coordinated with the activists – that would have made things turn better."

That night, some 3,000 protesters converged on Tahrir Square to protect the army defectors. At around 2am, police and military forces entered the square by force, which they occupied for almost three hours. "I knew that if we left, the army officers would be taken forever," Amr Bassiouny, political activist and eyewitness, told Ahram Online. "I felt it was my duty to stay."

The 8 April army officers were ultimately sentenced to ten years in prison, later reduced to three years. A number of protests were later staged in solidarity with the officers and calling for their release.

“As we went to prison, we were told to stay silent to be left in peace. But if we were capable of being silent, we wouldn’t have been prisoners.” These are the lines of a poem written by Mohamed El-Wadiee, one of the army officers, and later posted on YouTube. 

Immediately after the 9 April melee, the SCAF released a statement claiming that the attack had targeted "thugs" and members of Mubarak's (now-defunct) National Democratic Party, who were accused of "conducting sabotage" in the square. In a subsequent statement, the SCAF described anyone who continued to stage sit-ins in the square past the military-imposed curfew as "outlaws."

But the events of 8 April, 2011 turned out only to be the beginning – not the end – of Egypt's turbulent post-revolution interim phase.

The 12 months following the 8 April attack on protesters teemed with other, even more bloody incidents. These included the Abbasiya attacks in July; the Maspero attacks on Copts in October; the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in November; the so-called "Cabinet clashes" in December; and the Mohamed Mahmoud attacks that followed January's Port Said Stadium massacre.

Yet many Egyptians nevertheless continue to remain silent – out of confusion, a lack of alternatives and, perhaps most importantly, fear. For many Egyptians, said Abdel Wahab, fears of military rule are trumped by fears of Islamist rule.

In a country of some 85 million, it's hard to generalise. Many believe that the SCAF has actually served to protect the revolution – and not merely its own narrow interests.

Mahmoud Khalaf of the National Institute for Middle East Studies explained to Ahram Online that, to some, the SCAF is simply ruling Egypt at a challenging time, which has forced the military to occasionally resort to the use of force.

"Egyptians are smart enough to distinguish between the SCAF and the army," Khalaf told Ahram Online. "The people have always respected the army, which they see as the nation's protector."

More than one year after the revolution, protesters continue to chant: "Down, down with the military rule." Only rarely does one still hear that initial hopeful chant – reminiscent, perhaps, of a more innocent era – "The army and people are one hand."

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