Urbanizing the Counter-Revolution
Since February of this year Cairo has become dotted with sites of trauma, locations where violence—and often death—have taken place at the hands of security forces or army personnel. Despite the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) claim that it “protected the revolution” and its continuous promises to transition “post-Mubarak Egypt” into democracy, they have stood silent and unremorseful at the loss of human life. A series of violent clashes, sometimes continuing for days at a time, have been taking place in ways Egypt has never seen before. As of the writing of this piece, nine protesters have been confirmed dead at the hands of military and security personnel in their attack on protesters outside the cabinet and parliament buildings.
On Wednesday 14 December, tens of protesters occupying the street outside the cabinet and parliament buildings were poisoned after eating sandwiches that were given to them by an unknown “good doer.” The mass poisoning was a clear attempt to end the sit-in, which had started on the first of December. The sit-in continued until the early hours of Friday when a protester was kidnapped, beaten, and dumped back at the sit-in, a clear instigation. The following hours witnessed security persons throwing glass, rocks, pieces of granite, and even office furniture from the cabinet and parliament buildings at the protesters below. By mid-day lethal weapons were used by fatigue-clad soldiers, causing at least three deaths and tens of injuries.
Today’s clashes come at the end of the second round of voting in Egypt’s parliamentary elections. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party released a statement regarding recent events condemning violence against civilians. State television reported that the clashes followed an attack on a security officer and that no army or police were present on the roofs of buildings. These reports also alleged that the army did not resort to the use of weapons, or violence more generally, despite mounting evidence proving the contrary. The 16 December violence comes as the most recent episode in a string of similar urban crises where the city as well as its streets and buildings become the stage for regime atrocities that were once confined to secret detention centers and state security dungeons. Today, men in uniform pulled women by their hair on the pavement. Such images were unthinkable just months ago, and a great majority of Egyptians are in denial of what is taking place: officially sanctioned and systematic abuses of human rights, torture, and murder of peaceful, unarmed protesters.
Tahrir Square between January and December
Tahrir Square’s central location and its symbolism as a space of resistance made it the undisputed stage for the Egyptian Revolution. Eleven months on, those same aspects of the square seem to be working against it.
Location is a key aspect of any effective political protest. Cairo’s Tahrir Square has been attracting those believing in revolution from all across Cairo and indeed from across the country. Yet, in such a vast city the majority of residents live away from the square and many, particularly the upper middle and upper classes, have abandoned this part of the city for decades. For many Egyptians Downtown Cairo and other historic districts such as those collectively labeled “Islamic Cairo” have been stigmatized since the1980s and bring to mind decay, danger, poverty, pollution, and crowdedness. There is an entire generation who has never been to Tahrir Square or its surrounding areas. This lack of knowledge of one’s own city and the capital is a result of intentional amnesia perpetuated by Egypt’s bourgeoisie combined with the total absence of civic pride and the neglect of urban history altogether. Media messages and government statements are directed towards this middle class mindset and build on this already existing image of Tahrir Square roaming with low-class “baltagiyya.”
In addition to its cumulative historic symbolism, since January 2011, Tahrir has gained new symbolism squarely centered on contemporary events. As the ruling regime continues to divide the population further along sectarian, political, and party lines, many grow uneasy with Tahrir’s symbolism. Following the regime’s narrative, some Egyptians believe protests—specifically Tahrir Square protests—are to blame for instability, violence, and insecurity. Thus, despite the square’s meaning and symbolism to those believing in the revolution, much of public discourse regarding the square is directed towards those who are not in it. This component in society is sometimes referred to as “the silent majority” or, more cynically, as hizb el kanaba([political party of the sofa]. In Mubarak’s last days, his media machine attempted to portray Tahrir Square as a place of disorder, violence, debauchery, and even hedonism. That level of absurdity has now been refined as state and some private media outlets continue to build on their audiences’ ignorance to spread false information and cast doubt on the very revolutionary process the SCAF claimed to protect earlier this year. Just as revolutionaries put politics back on Egyptian streets, the counter revolutionary forces are urbanizing their efforts to defeat the revolution.
Fabricated Urban Crises
Prior to today’s crisis at the cabinet and parliament buildings, the previous episode in this chain of urban violence was on the eve of the first round of parliamentary elections. Those events were a clear example of the audacity of the regime to create a narrative targeted both at Egyptian audiences as well as international observers. This narrative is fundamentally flawed and is built on ignorance of basic facts. The official government claim is that recent violence on Mohamed Mahmoud Street (beginning 19 November and lasting over five days) was in defense of Egypt’s Interior Ministry. Any basic tourist map would clearly show that Mohamed Mahmoud Street does not directly lead to the Interior Ministry, and that many other streets could have been the sites of battles if attackers were indeed targeting the ministry. Officials also fully denied the use of any weapons against protesters despite mounting evidence proving otherwise. The state-owned Al Ahram reported that paid thugs belonging to the ex-regime incited fighting between protesters and security forces. This “third party” line of reasoning has been used throughout Egypt’s revolution from the start as a way for authorities to evade responsibility: sometimes it was foreign agents, baltageyya [thugs], or as in this casefoloul [regime remnants].
At the end of five days of continuous fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street some thirty protesters died and two thousand were injured, with many loosing one or both eyes. The ministry building several blocks away is a fortress with watchtowers and massive gates and the government has not presented any evidence that anyone actually attempted to break into the complex. If that street does not lead directly to the ministry as the official narrative tells us, then what was really happening on Mohamed Mahmoud Street?
The ongoing violence at the cabinet building and the previous episode at Mohamed Mahmoud street are the last in a series of fabricated urban crises, each designed to distract or create confusion while sending messages to local and global audiences. All are attempts to undercut the very idea of revolution. If in fact protesters were on their way to attack the ministry, does that legitimize excessive use of preemptive force? Is it not the responsibility of authorities to protect human life before protecting any building or institution? If—as officials claim—a third party was involved, is it not a total failure for authorities to spend five full days and nights fighting without identifying the supposed accomplices and protecting civilians? Amateur videos prove that security and army forces instigated the violence when they attacked the square, killed civilians, and demeaned their corpses.
The previous battle, or fabricated crisis, was the infamous 9 October massacre at Maspero state television. Then, too, violence was instigated against a predominantly Coptic protest. The violence left dozens dead—some severely mutilated—and sent fear into Egypt’s Christian population. It also inflamed sectarianism. To world observers, however, this was a bleak foreshadowing of the fate of Egypt’s minorities in post-Mubarak Egypt. The army then cleaned the site of any evidence and washed the blood from the pavement. The army also used the massacre as an excuse to resort to extra-legal tribunals and has since detained Alaa Abdelfattah, a leading activist, among others, with false charges.
Prior to the Maspero Massacre, there was another infamous fabricated crisis at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. The embassy, which has not been attacked in twenty years of its existence, is located on a street that is occupied territory. Residents of the street must pass a security checkpoint and be searched to enter and they must notify security of their guests twenty-four-hours in advance. The governor of Cairo decided to erect a concrete wall along the street to protect the embassy from potential attacks; it was then that the embassy was indeed attacked for the first time on 9 September. Again, eyewitness accounts reported the bizarre behavior of security personnel who did not intervene until the incident was well documented and televised. Only then did they disperse the crowd. The concrete wall was ultimately removed. The incident conveniently occurred at the expiration of the Emergency Law, which was set to expire according to the interim constitution. The Emergency Law was reinstituted due to the attack.
On 23 July a similar scenario was orchestrated near the Defense Ministry when a peaceful march was blocked off and protesters were trapped in Abbasiyya. Molotov cocktails and rocks were hurled at protesters from the roofs of surrounding buildings and the army present did not interfere to protect civilians. Numerous images and videos show plainclothes individuals standing with the red beret military police and threatening protesters with knives and sticks. This incident was played out in local media as an attempt by protesters to attack Egypt’s army and to break into the Defense Ministry. The situation further inflamed an already fatigued population and raised tensions against those opposing military rule.
The above-listed incidents are only a selection from a series of instigated violent crises beginning on 9 March when the army forcibly evacuated Tahrir Square. However, we should not allow the myth of Mubarak’s fall to distinguish between these recent events and the atrocities committed by the regime during the eighteen-day uprising or in previous years, including the Alexandria church bombing in the first hours of 2011. What has changed is that the regime is more public with its violence and the city has become the backdrop.
[Video showing urban violence between January and December 2011. Video by Mosireen. Warning: Graphic Content]
The Tools of Occupation
The events of the past eleven months have put into focus the notion of the “postcolonial.” During the past decade it was becoming increasingly clear that postcolonial regimes only serve private interests, the interests of multinational corporations and the strategic interests of superpowers, not the people they rule. Recent events in Egypt further highlighted that Mubarak’s regime reinvented colonial rule by fashioning itself in a nationalist guise while occupying the role of colonizers, exploiting resources and labor as well as using state institutions in the service of a select group of neoliberal capitalists. Now parts of Cairo actually look like occupied territory with streets blocked with barbed wire, military checkpoints, and stonewalls. Besides the neocolonial economic and social patterns encouraged by the regime, recent events have given it the visibility of a colonial occupation in the urban environment.
One striking spatial and visual component of the SCAF’s handling of these episodes of urban crisis is the erection of walls. The concrete wall erected at the Israeli Embassy on the eve of its attack was reminiscent of the Egypt-Gaza barrier, the Israeli West Bank barrier, or the Green Zone wall in Baghdad. After five days of fighting the army finally decided to end the Mohamed Mahmoud episode by stacking stone blocks across a typically busy street that is home to the American University as well as multiple schools and apartment buildings. On December 17 large stone blocks similar to those positioned in Mohamed Mahmoud Street were placed blocking Qasr el-Aini Street, one of Cairo’s major avenues and the site of the ongoing clashes. Furthermore, after forcibly evicting protesters from Tahrir Square in August, security forces were made to stand in the summer sun during the fasting month of Ramadan shoulder to shoulder forming a human wall around the traffic circle. Walls and fences in different variations are not new to the Mubarak regime, which erected them around public buildings, museums, government offices, five-star hotels and even sidewalks in key locations. Many police stations have watchtowers. This architecture is one of occupation. It reflects the ways in which the state views its citizens.
Secondly, no one has been held accountable for the loss of human life since the SCAF took control. In every incident described above, the authorities have completely evaded responsibility, despite claims that investigations would take place. Hundreds of documented deaths and thousands of injuries later, not a single investigation yielded any results. Authorities have denied the use of force in every incident and, even worse, in some cases—such as the Abbasiyya and Maspero incidents—the army called for “honorable citizens” to protect them from supposed attackers—who in reality happen to be protesters. In other cases the army cited self-defense as an excuse for injuries afflicted on protesters. The aggressor is playing the role of the victim, a typical trademark in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but also in the US occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Someone is getting away with murder.
The third tool of occupation is the unprecedented use of the human body as a political battleground. From virginity tests and sexual molestation of both male and female activists, to beatings and mutilation, the rulers of Egypt during the “transitional period” are resorting to a cornerstone in colonial occupation. Bodily violence has been a consistent feature of colonialism from the German occupation of southwest Africa to the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal. The purpose of inflicting pain is to ensure compliance and intimidation. Such violence took place extensively during Mubarak’s tenure. However, the recent shift has been the marked publicity of such actions where torture and physical violence occur in streets and public squares in the presence of cameras and eyewitnesses.
Death used to be a big deal not too long ago in this part of the world. One year ago on 17 December, when Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set his body alight out of desperation, his act caused an entire nation to rise and revolt. In Egypt, Khaled Said’s death was a turning point and a spark for Egypt’s revolution. A year later, state violence has become urbanized, more public, and systematic. During the raging battle on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, life went on as usual only a few streets away. The authorities have structured urban violence into daily life to such an extent that it is becoming acceptable to a sizeable portion of the population who continue to be silent. Those not at the scene of the crime grow further alienated by “the Tahrir people” as the protesters are condescendingly referred to. Today, one of those murdered “Tahrir people” was a medical student, Alaa Abdel Hady, who has been helping at the field hospital since the beginning of the uprising. Another was Emad Effat, a cleric from Al Azhar University.
During protests and sit-ins Tahrir has become a revolutionary ghetto. Television channels have twenty-four-hour cameras pointed at Tahrir and other sites of protest so that for audiences at home Tahrir has become just another channel. One year ago the National Democratic Party was celebrating a sweeping “win” in the parliamentary elections and today amidst all the unprecedented and fabricated violence elections are taking place where there is a clear “winner.” Between those two elections a revolution started but not one of its goals was met, the most urgent of which was the respect for human dignity. Perhaps the most illustrative image that emerged from today was of military personnel in uniform urinating on protesters below from the roof of the parliament building.
Egyptians have yet to regain control of their country and have not yet regained their basic rights. Instead the counter-revolution has manipulated the city to suppress and defeat the revolutionaries who had finally brought life and politics back to the streets. The regime still thinks it can win using excessive force and the United States still thinks it can preach democracy while backing an oppressive military regime. Egyptians will have the final word.