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Dispatches From Cairo: The Worst So Far

Truthdig asked Lauren Unger-Geoffroy, an Arabic-speaking American who lives in Cairo, to share her perspective of life in Egypt after the revolution. In this entry, she writes about a new surge in army brutality in suppressing protest.

CAIRO—Foreboding and warning. Egypt should have felt it coming. This was the worst so far. Hope is gone. The people are in despair. As our imam shouted Friday at noon prayer: Will it get worse before we have cleansed the land of Satan?

Authorities are now accusing 164 people of being involved in the new violence and interrogations have begun, with even injured people being questioned in hospitals. Many of the suspects are under 19 years old. Some are children, street kids accused of throwing Molotov cocktails. Some of the doctors at Omar Makram field hospital are being detained. At least one of the detainees has died from his injuries; activists accuse the army and security forces of torturing him in the headquarters of the national Cabinet.

Egyptian army soldiers arrest a woman protester during clashes with military police near Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square, Friday, Dec. 16, 2011.Yet in my neighborhood Thursday night, a time when most Egyptians still were unaware of the beginning of this catastrophe, there was a hopeful festiveness stemming from the opening of a restaurant by a famous takeout food company. Blasting Egyptian dance music through the mosque speakers till midnight, the event was like a wedding celebration, full of lights and decorations.

The spanking-new restaurant brought some prestige to our garbage-strewn and unpaved market area. Groups of cute girls, dressed up, and guys from a nicer area a few blocks away are showing up for El Shabrawy takeout.

It was interesting to see the new adjustment of head covering and niqab in the crowd. Since the revolution, in my conservative quasi-all-head-scarfed area, more and more women have been in niqab (black body and face covering)—but surprisingly now there also are a few uncovered girls and women. Perhaps as a reaction to the Islamist election dominance, and anticipation of shariah enforcement, some girls were uncovering their hair. Just a few. It will change next week?

Many lower-class and lower-middle-class women in their 20s are putting on the niqab at a time when their mothers favor a more liberal style of hijab.

The voting day in parliamentary elections was difficult here in my neighborhood; a group that arrived at 9 a.m. was unable to cast votes until about 5 p.m. There were pamphlets around from an organization called Shahid, or Witness, that listed emergency phone numbers and other information for use if trouble should arise at voting stations.

Our district’s vote went to the Muslim Brotherhood, but the overall area is large and the support for the Muslim Brotherhood did not reflect the wealthy, well-educated liberal section. To liberals, the elections represent the beginning of a democratic Egypt, but also the possibility of a party that favors Islamic law coming to power. 

That possibility has already affected the Christian community. Since the Jan. 25 beginning of the revolution, 100,000 Christian families have emigrated, according to Naguib Gibrael, the Coptic Church’s lawyer.

Violent confrontations between religious groups have been common, though many Muslims and Christians say that most incidents grew out of personal feuds that escalated into religious battles. Private Muslim and Coptic television channels hurl outrageous accusations and justify violence against the other side in the name of God. Any Muslim or Copt hearing and believing the rhetoric well might become enraged. Adults program this hatred into children.

“He didn’t advocate violence,” the widow of Sheik Emad Effat, moderate senior clerk of the great Al-Azhar Mosque’s influential Dar Al-Ifta religious authority, said. “He was here for the protests in January and February, he was there now to show solidarity with the protesters.” He died Friday of a gunshot wound sustained when military police attempted to violently dispersed the sit-in that his widow spoke of.

At his funeral Saturday, thousands mourned his death, including Al-Azhar officials, political activists and Coptic Christian figures, among them prominent Coptic priest Felopateer Gamil and members of the Maspero Youth Coptic activist group.

Afterward, we went home and wept in shock at videos of the violence showing innocent, fleeing people being beaten to death. Heads were stomped on by soldiers; a girl’s hijab was ripped off, revealing her underwear, and her ribs were kicked in. The world saw the heroic military of the revolution’s heart—“the people and the army, one hand”—throw concrete, furniture and urine onto the protesters from above, laughing. It was there for all the world to witness.

This occurred as the military-assigned “interim” prime minister was on television denying that the military was using violence. The savagery came from “someone else,” he said. But we all watched it live on TV and online, in images clear enough to see the grins on the soldiers’ faces as they dropped concrete and other debris onto the protesters. The videos went out despite soldiers destroying cameras and video crews’ material.

Why did the army do it? What actually happened? It seems that a fight between a young Ultra (a member of a nationwide group of football fans who have been involved in the protests) and the military in which he was beaten mercilessly was the spark that set off this frenzy of brutality in Cairo’s tinderbox.

The peasants and middle class and others in my bustling, dusty area are usually not impressed by events, but in this case there was a psychological impact: Thousands of phones rang as calls came in from relatives and friends who were on the scene or watching televisions; the cries of alarm were like a dull roar that came in waves.

Eman, a 22-year-old woman standing at the bakery, spit and said it was over between her and her fiancé Ali, a soldier—first a hero, now a monster. He is disgusting, she said. “They are like animals! Not human!” She and I agreed that the soldiers seemed like the vicious baboons the ancient Egyptians are said to have used to guard the temples.

“Eh da? Eh da? What is this?” We yelled at the images on the computer. (At first, the coverage was not broadcast on national television, and the satellite doesn’t work here.)

The science institute building was burning, and the roof was about to collapse as protesters pleaded with security people to put it out. They were ignored. No one knows whether the fire started inside or outside, but this important building was eventually saved by the protesters. It was the responsibility of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)  to protect the building and its content.

On a TV set outside a shoe store I watched as the scientific institute’s “irreplaceable maps and historical manuscripts preserved by many generations since the building of the Scientific Institute in August 1798 during the French Campaign” were destroyed, as Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri said in a statement.

A massive explosion erupted, apparently having originated inside the building, and black smoke billowed. A dozen men in military uniforms on the library roof had been throwing concrete blocks and rocks at the protesters below and spraying them with hoses to push them away from the building. Protesters hurled stones as well as Molotov cocktails.

The Ministry of Culture reported that only two-thirds of the books and manuscripts of the Egyptian scientific institute were saved. But whether or not the original version of the 213-year-old “Description of Egypt” was burned is uncertain amid contradictory reports. The institute’s official report says the book was burned, but the general secretary of the People’s Assembly claims he has the original book along with other books and manuscripts from the French invasion in his own private library. And an Al Farj Newspaper journalist claims he bought some of the manuscripts after the fire.

Some consider the library, constructed under Napoleon, to be the most important in Africa and the Middle East.

Much of the beauty of the spirit of Tahrir Square has now been destroyed, ripped apart by soldiers swarming like enraged red ants to attack protesters impotently throwing stones and Molotov cocktails.

“The next parliament will not represent all the Egyptian people. But the constitution will affect all the citizens of Egypt. We are at the first stage of democracy,” a member of the SCAF, Maj. Gen. Moukhtar El-Mulla, has said. So that all sectors of society will be represented on the committee drafting the new constitution, El-Mulla said, the new parliament will be aided by the SCAF, which will act as an advisory body.

The Muslim Brotherhood had demanded that the new parliament be able to vote “no confidence” in the government should it wish to do so, something that was unacceptable to the military. The SCAF said the military would remain in full control of the executive branch until a new president was elected before the end of next June.

A full-scale confrontation over this issue developed in November, lasting a week and leaving 45 people dead and hundreds injured. Sources close to the SCAF maintained then that El-Mulla’s original statements had been misunderstood.

On the same day that the SCAF retracted the statements that had so angered the Muslim Brotherhood, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, made visits to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the president of the SCAF, to Prime Minister Ganzouri and to the headquarters of the Brotherhood, where the U.S. officials met with three top Brotherhood officials.

Judges supervising the elections and the vote counting threatened to boycott after some of the judges were attacked by military police in Sharqiya on Thursday night. Thousands of people had surrounded the voting stations in the governorates of Sharqiya and Beheira as well as in the Imababa and Haram districts in Giza governorate, obstructing the judges from entering to start the vote counting process. “Military and police forces started cracking down on everyone outside the general committees, including the judges, in a bid to disperse the crowd,” said Mahmoud El-Sherif, secretary-general and spokesperson of the Judges’ Club. “Military police didn’t understand or respond when judges tried to explain their identity, and they continued to beat everyone in sight.” More than 300 complaints of attacks on judges Thursday was received by the Judges’ Club.

Runoffs are scheduled to take place Wednesday and Thursday in phase two of parliamentary elections, and the third round of voting in the last nine governorates is slated for Jan. 3 and 4. Preliminary results of the second round were similar to those of the first, giving the lead to Islamist parties.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), came in first in most of the nine governorates, while the Salafi Al-Nour Party came in second, followed by the more liberal Egyptian Bloc.

In the first round of elections, the FJP and Al-Nour raked in about 70 percent of the votes, while the FJP reports it received 3,565,092 out of 9.7 million valid votes. Salafi (fundamentalist) Al-Nour took in 2,372,713.

The Egyptian Bloc came in third place, winning 1,371,713 votes, or 13.4 percent. That group said it was in second place, following the FJP, in upper Egypt.

In addition, there were votes cast for independent seats.

* * *

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said that the military did not use any live ammunition in the confrontation at the Cabinet building and that its duty was to protect the building, which had been breached by protesters. So several hundred soldiers rushed at the protesters, beating them with sticks, kicking them and using electric shock devices, and chased them into side streets.

It is grimly amusing as the police and the army take turns in casting blame, relying on a script similar to the one used last month when it was the police doing the killing. In the new violence, an Interior Ministry official denied police were involved. “This situation has nothing to do with the police or the Ministry of Interior, and we do not have forces at the site of the clashes,” said Gen. Marwan Mustapha, a ministry spokesman.

* * *

Monday was the birthday of the slain Alaa Abdel Hady. Monday the slain Ahmed Mansour was supposed to receive his graduation certificate.

Blogger Michael Nabil has now been sentenced to two years more after being charged with “spreading false news” and “insulting the armed forces” in his blog.

On Oct. 30, Alla abd El Fattah, activist and winner of the Reporters Without Borders Special Award in Deutsche Welle’s Best of Blogs competition, was arrested on charges of inciting violence against the military during the Oct. 9 Maspero demonstrations.

* * *

Sunday night I opened my apartment door to walk my 17-year-old handyman down to let him out of the building, hoping not to see the new building guard, who came up the previous night and kicked out the teenager while we were working on a cabinet on the floor in front of my door. “No man after 10 p.m.,” the guard said disapprovingly.

As I threw on a head scarf and stepped out, the handyman said: “Ya, Louna! Careful! Your hair!”

There was a bit showing.

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