Global media coverage of news from Egypt over the last week was focused on the trial of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It ignored--or gave only footnote status to--a more important development: the forcible expulsion on Monday, August 1, of democracy activists from Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the occupation of the square by the Egyptian military and police. Armed forces now surround the central square area, literally taking up the space occupied by the democracy movement only a few days ago.
The trial of Hosni Mubarak, who oversaw his government’s killing of more than 1,000 Egyptians, whose only crime was peacefully protesting for basic human rights and dignity, is an important step toward establishing the rule of law in Egypt. But, it is only one step toward democratic reform. That the ruling Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) saw fit to shut down Tahrir Square shows, at best, that they don’t understand the importance of that place for the democratic development of Egypt.
Tahrir Square was, and is, the epicenter of social change in Egypt. The revolution began there on January 25, and it became a community of liberation, a place where Egyptians could voice to their deepest aspirations for freedom, social justice and dignity. It has been a gathering point for people coming from all over Egypt to debate the future of their country, and also to find and share their courage to express their needs and values, so long crushed by the Mubarak regime.
It has also been a genuine community, with Egyptians sharing food, music, living space, culture, and ideas. Dr. Pakinam El Sharkawy, Director of Cairo University’s Center for Civilization Studies and Dialogue of Cultures, describes the experience of Tahrir Square during the early revolutionary days as “magnificient….It was something really spiritual. There were gates in Tahrir, and when you entered the gates, you feel the spirit: people sitting together, caring for each other, loving each other. The most secure place in Egypt was Tahrir Square. The people were securing each other. When you ask anyone who had been there, they have the same answers, the same experience.”
SCAF tactics since the initial closing of the square have only escalated in violence. After the square was cleared on Monday, August 1, the following Friday evening, August 5, a few hundred peaceful protesters gathered to break their Ramadan fast and briefly demonstrate. The protesters made it clear they weren't attempting to re-occupy the Square. But, unprovoked, the military violently attacked the protesters. I was a witness to this attack.
The protesters were on an island of the square that was open earlier in the day, not the center area that has been cordoned off by the police since Monday. They shared food with each other. Then, they demonstrated, with speeches, chants, and songs.
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The army gathered across the street, but it seemed from their formations that they were just there to stop protesters from blocking traffic or reoccupying the central island of the square. Then, without any provocation, the army charged the island. This was not a standard police-style block formation to clear protesters out of a public space. This was a brutal attack by the military on completely unarmed, 100% peaceful protesters, whose protest was largely completed.
The soliders beat dozens of protesters indiscriminately, most of whom were simply trying to escape. I repeatedly saw groups of five to ten soldiers chase down boys who couldn’t be any older than ten years old and beat them with yard-long sticks. The soldiers chased protesters many blocks from Tahrir Square, all the way to the Kasr-al-Nile Bridge half a mile away, for the purpose of beating them.
Many dozens of bullets were fired as the soldiers chased the protesters through the streets, presumably into the air. Though there haven’t been reports of anyone being shot, though many protesters were hospitalized from their beating injuries.
Clearly, the purpose of the attack was not just to clear that little island of the square. The level of brutality suggests that its true purpose was to strike fear in the hearts of anyone who wants to make public political expression in the main town square of Egypt.
In terms of world media attention, the Egyptian regime is getting away with tremendous brutality, possibly because the brutality in Syria at the moment is even worse, and the trial of Mubarak draws attention away from the suppression of the people power demonstrations that brought about his overthrow.
Tahrir Square represents both the symbol and substance of democracy in Egypt. Democracy and freedom of assembly are part of the same principle. If you shut down the right of people to assemble peacefully to express their hopes, fears and dreams, you can’t claim to be a democracy, even an emerging one. SCAF cannot legitimately assert that it is facilitating the transition to democracy in Egypt while suppressing the fundamental democratic human right of “freedom of peaceful assembly and association,” as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20).
When asked about the importance of Tahrir Square, Sabah Hamamou, an editor at Al-Ahram, a prominent Egyptian newspaper, said in an interview, “Democracy is people finding space to express the things they want. But things start with a space.” In Egypt, that space begins in, and emanates from, Tahrir Square.
Despite the brutality, the democratic movement in Egypt shows extraordinarily admirable resilience and courage. In the wake of the events of last Friday, a broad coalition of organizations organized a new protest in Tahrir Square, which took place Friday. Egypt’s Sufis, in coalition with Copt Christians and secular groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement, organized the demonstration for an Egyptian civil state, as opposed to a religion-based government, as was advocated in the Square by conservative Muslims a few weeks ago. The military police chased protesters with sticks and fired shots in the air when they attempted to retake the central island of the Square, but the main protest was allowed to continue as planned. The status of the Square is clearly in flux. What happens in Tahrir Square in the coming weeks will be an important measure of the state of democratic change in Egypt.