Let the military elect another people

Mona Anis , Thursday 28 Jul 2011

After having labeled poor protesters as baltagiya (thugs), the ruling military council has now turned the heat on the more affluent, claiming they don't look Egyptian enough

Mubarak has fallen, but not his regime. So says poet Abdel-Rahman El-Abnoudi in his most recent poem, published at the beginning of this month. It is a sentiment shared by many Egyptians who express their dissatisfaction with the slow pace of trials of the former president and his top officials, unwillingness to purge Egypt’s notorious security apparatus, which ruled the country for so long, and failure to curb the corrupt administrative legacy of the regime.

This is the same sentiment that drove hundreds of thousands of Egyptian to Tahrir Square on 8 July, thousands of whom have staged a sit-in since that date to press for the rapid fulfillment of seven demands: the prompt and firm handling of the grievances of the families of over 800 martyrs killed during the uprising; abrogating sentences handed down by military tribunals to civilians and retrying them before civilian courts; speeding up the trials of former regime officials charged with corruption and manslaughter; restructuring of the ministry of interior, placing it under judicial review and replacing the present minister with a civilian; replacing the present prosecutor-general; limiting the powers of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and granting the prime minister more power to purge his cabinet of elements loyal to the former regime; and lastly cancelling the state budget announced recently and debating a new one favouring the poor and underprivileged.

A few of these demands have been met, top among them being a cabinet reshuffle which excluded most ministers with a strong affiliation to the now disbanded National Democratic Party, and the setting up of special judicial panels to try the former president and top officials of his regime in public trials aired on TV.

However, the thousands of people still occupying Tahrir Square perceived these moves as being a case of too little, too late. They announced their intention to organise a peaceful march to the headquarters of the ministry of defence in Koubri El-Koba, in order to present their demands on 23 July, Egypt's national day, which commemorates the July Revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952.

The announcement of the march was received with mixed reactions by the public, and the ruling SCAF found it an unacceptable challenge. As a result, the first serious clashes between the military and the protesters took place on 23 July, when armoured vehicles and tanks were deployed in the neighbourhood of Abbassiya, sealing off any entry to Koubri El-Kouba, and hundreds of civilian militiamen armed with knives, sticks and Molotov cocktails were mobilised to clash with the demonstrators in full view of the army, which seemed to welcome the brutal handling of the protesters by what were claimed to be angry Abbassiya residents.

The present writer happens to have grown up in Abbassiya, where my grandparents on both sides lived from the 1920s onwards and where my mother and other relatives still live. Hence, I can vouch with almost absolute certainty that no peaceful resident of Abbassiya, or anywhere else for that matter, would willingly leave his or her house to engage in an armed battle of this scale in which hundreds were seriously injured.

Visiting my family the following day after what had become known as “the battle of Abbassiya,” we joked about the fact that none of them, nor any of their neighbours, had participated in this battle. However, to my surprise, I also found that many members of my family were convinced that the demonstrators had been infiltrated by foreign elements wanting to destabilise the country.

Earlier, the SCAF had orchestrated a campaign against the groups in Tahrir Square, claiming they were infiltrated by foreign elements and spies and that many of them were “suspicious and foreign-looking,” as one general kept repeating in more than one TV appearance. This campaign reached its climax on 22 July, when a statement issued by the SCAF accused the 6 April Youth Movement of being in the paid service of foreign elements.

It seems that this witch-hunt has now borne fruit, as many of the demonstrators I met following the “battle of Abbassiya” spoke with bitterness about how they had been roughed up in side streets in Abbassiya and accused of being traitors. One particular human rights activist I know, Amr Gharbeia, who has long hair, was stopped by local people, beaten up and handed to security agents, who, not wanting to take him into custody, left him to the knife-wielding zealots, who threatened and beat him up en route. Various public figures and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, Gharbia’s previous employer, then intervened, and he was released from custody in the early hours of the morning.

All this constitutes a new development and merits attention. First, the SCAF accused those civilians it was trying in haste before military tribunals of being baltajiya (plural of baltaji), a term I don't like using, especially in the context of the January uprising, as it smacks of class snobbery. Freely translated, it means a thug, but more accurately it’s coined from two words, balta (axe or hatchet in Arabic) and ji (the Turkish suffix meaning the person wielding the balta). In the Middle Ages, governors used to be escorted by strong men wielding baltas to protect them. Thus, a baltaji is basically a strong man paid to protect someone rich, though this term is often used in Egypt to describe tough-looking poor people.

As the majority of Egyptians are poor, it follows that most of the young people who participated in the 25 January uprising came from modest backgrounds. When they were arrested they were called baltajiya to justify the harsh treatment they received. On the other hand, many young people belonging to the more affluent classes and being beneficiaries of foreign educations also participated in the uprising. For some time, it looked as if these westernised-looking young people would be safe from the harsh treatment meted out to the poorer majority. Now, however, the SCAF is labeling these young people as “suspicious and foreign-looking” and inciting people to stop them in the streets.

This kind of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” operation reminds me of a poem by the German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. In summer 1953, following unrest in East Berlin, capital of the now defunct German Democratic Republic, officials in the leadership of the ruling party argued that “the people had forfeited the confidence of the government, and could win it back only by redoubled efforts.” To this argument, Brecht sarcastically replied that: “Would it not be easier/ In that case for the government/ To dissolve the people/ And elect another?”

If the SCAF does not like the look of the Egyptian people, rich or poor, then perhaps it should follow Brecht's advice and find another one.

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