The Contested Image of the Military Figure during AND AFTER 25 JANUARY 2011
Throughout the decade of the 1990s, violent clashes between the Islamist groups and the police forces were taking place across the country, culminating in the massacre of tourists in Luxor in 1997 by the Islamists. A new Interior Minister came on board, Habib al-Adly, who added multiple layers of police brutality against dissenting voices during the first decade of the new millennium. Al-Adly was finally removed from office with the break out of the 2011 January Revolution. As mentioned in Chap. 2, the day 25 January was, ironically, celebrated by the regime as Police Day, hence the significance of instigating an uprising against the police force on its national day. The day was chosen carefully by the protest organisers with the aim of sending a strong message to the Interior Ministry and the regime as a whole, particularly after the Tunisian revolutionaries succeeded in ousting Zein al-Abideen Bin Ali on 14 January 2011. On a popular level, as many songs and slogans testify, the Egyptian uprising certainly drew inspiration from the Tunisian Revolution. Al-Adly was imprisoned in 2011, but was acquitted, in 2014, of the charges of plotting to kill demonstrators (similar to Mubarak) after Sisi came to power.
In the years preceding the 2011 January Revolution, and when it became clear that the Mubarak family were grooming their son Gamal to become president after his father, there was much discontent amongst some sectors in the army with Mubarak. On the whole, the two main branches which remained loyal to Mubarak were the Presidential Guard and the Air Force (Amar 2012a, p. 86). It was clear from the start of the January 2011 uprising that any political outcome to the conflict would have to include the role and position of the armed forces, and within it, the Intelligence apparatus. On the evening of 28 January 2011, the Police force was ordered to withdraw from all positions due to the extreme violence they had exerted on the protesters, having killed many across Egypt, and the army was deployed to take over their positions in the squares and streets. The overwhelming majority of protesters welcomed this move as they found a new momentum and felt protected whilst the army vehicles were taking position on the main squares. People chanted loudly and collectively: Al Geish wal-Sha‘b Eid Wahda (The Army and the People are One Hand) and Silmiyya (nonviolent/peaceful), thus declaring their ultimate intention to the army soldiers on the streets that the protesters wanted the protests and sit-ins to be nonviolent. The protesters had faith in their armed forces and believed no soldier would shoot at the people because they are of them (Khalil 2012, p. 259). There are numerous photographs online of protesters celebrating the arrival of the army soldiers at that point, bringing them flowers and jumping on the tanks to take pictures with them. Menna Khalil (2012) comments that the chant of ‘The Army and the People are One Hand’ ‘seemed to encapsulate and translate a long-standing relationship between the people and the army. [...] [it] is not simply a statement but an aspiration and an expectation grounded in prior significations and meanings’ (pp. 258, 260—emphasis in original).15
However, this sense of unity and peace between the protesters and the soldiers was soon to disband during the first eighteen days. Firstly, the soldiers stationed on top of their tanks had strict orders to be ‘neutral’ and not to shoot either at the protesters or at the pro-Mubarak armed infiltrators who were coming from all directions into the squares to attack and kill the protesters. In Tahrir Square, where I took part in the protests and sit-ins during that early period, I was dismayed, along with fellow protesters, at the inability of the soldiers to protect us from the criminals who wanted to break up the protests and harm us. On 2 February 2011, when pro- Mubarak criminals broke into Tahrir Square, whilst riding on camels, to disband the protesters and kill them, in what came to be known as the ‘Battle of the Camel’, the army soldiers stood there watching the two camps fight each other. This continued through the night into the following morning, when we were finally able to push the thugs beyond the square. Tens of people on both sides were killed on that night. These were early signs that the military vehicles deployed were not stationed there to protect us in our just demands, but indeed to guard the state buildings and institutions (such as the Egyptian Museum and the Mogamma) and the five-star hotels located along Tahrir Square. Snipers (we were never sure whether they were from the police or army forces) killed hundreds of protesters on Tahrir during the eighteen days. These were highly trained snipers who targeted the heart, eyes and heads of protesters and killed them instantly.
Moreover, the military police, with their red hats, started appearing in the square. Everyone knew that the torture methods of this special force of the army were similar to the methods of the Interior Ministry. The military police kidnapped, tortured and maimed many protesters, and the events of 9 March 2011 are proof of such brutal methods. On this day, tens of women and men went back to Tahrir Square to celebrate Women’s Day and to reiterate the demands of the revolution which had not been fulfilled. The march was dispersed by the military police and tens of activists were arrested, taken to the nearby Egyptian Museum and tortured. A number of women were subjected to ‘virginity tests’ which later led to a huge outcry in the country, where the military as an institution was directly attacked for what they did. In other words, the army soldiers who were initially welcomed on the streets and squares to replace the brutal CSF were soon to show their alliance with their senior-ranking officers against the protesters.
Fig. 4.1 Picture taken by the author—Tahrir Square, 1 February 2011
Omar Soliman, the head of the Intelligence Service, was declared vice president on 29 January 2011. In the days that followed, Mubarak assigned a new cabinet headed by a new prime minister, General Ahmed Shafiq, who had served as the Minister of Civil Aviation in the previous cabinet. Thus Mubarak drew these two senior officers from the army units which were most loyal to him: the Intelligence apparatus and the Air Force. However, with the uprising spreading further and gaining strength, and as more sectors of the population joined in, on 11 February 2011 Mubarak stepped down. It was Soliman who announced the news, whilst adding that the SCAF would be in charge. And thus, the SCAF stepped in as Mubarak stepped out.16
The SCAF then declared on more than one occasion that they would stay in office ‘for a transitional period’ of six months only, and reiterated that they did not want the army to be involved in politics. However, they stayed in office until June 2012. This military council consisted of nineteen members (one of whom was Abdel Fattah al-Sisi) and was headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (mentioned earlier in the chapter) who had served as Minister of Defence under Mubarak for twenty years (1991-2011). The faith which the people had in their armed forces was soon crushed in the months that followed, when SCAF masterminded one massacre after another against the protesters. At least five major massacres were committed against the protesters under the SCAF: in Maspero (October 2011); in Mohammed Mahmoud Street (November 2011); in the Cabinet sit-in (December 2011); the massacre against the football Ultras groups in Port Sa‘id city stadium (February 2012); and in Abbasiyya (April 2012). At the time of writing, not a single person has been handed a definitive sentence or held accountable for these massacres. ‘Retribution’ for the martyrs was the main demand voiced by millions of Egyptians to former president Mohammed Morsi when he came to power in June 2012. The word ‘retribution’ (or al-qasass in Arabic) has come to be at the heart of the revolutionary discourse. (See for example Fig. 4.2 of
Fig. 4.2 Picture taken by the author—A street graffiti image painted on the walls of Ittihadiyya Presidential Palace (Heliopolis, December 2012) the graffiti image below, which was painted on the walls of the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis during Morsi’s presidency of how the military figure was perceived at that point.)
Significant as it was, the 2011 January Revolution was indeed the product of a resistance culture which had been growing in Egypt throughout the previous decade. Here, it is crucial to stress this history of struggle which preceded the revolution because it is precisely this history which has sustained and advanced the ongoing struggle for freedom and social justice up to the present moment. Egyptian workers, political activists from a wide array of opposition parties and groups, students, judges, artists, journalists and hundreds of thousands of government employees across the country were organising and mobilising against the regime with increasing visibility and on a larger scale since the break out of the second Palestinian Intifiada (uprising) in 2000.
The 1990s was a decade of extreme political repression in Egypt, and the ability to protest or mobilise on the streets against the injustices of the Mubarak regime was minimal. During those years, the state was adamant in implementing the economic structural adjustment programme, dictated by the World Bank and the Internatinal Monetary Fund (IMF), with much force, including the brutal crackdown on political opponents: the Islamists, the leftists, human rights activists and students. However, in 2000, and in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifiada, Egyptian protesters defied Mubarak’s CSF and took to the streets in their thousands in the biggest protests since the 1970s. This protest movement culminated in the establishment of the ‘Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People’. With the break out of the war in Iraq in 2003, politics became more radicalised on the streets of Egypt. In fact, the war in Iraq was a defining historic moment in street politics in Egypt. In March 2003, more than 50,000 Egyptians from all sectors of society demonstrated and occupied Tahrir Square for two days demanding an end to the war and freedom for Iraq. This demonstration was reminiscent of the students’ and workers’ mass revolt in the early 1970s, when tens of thousands of students and workers joined forces to occupy the square demanding that the Sadat regime bring justice and dignity to Egypt and the Arab world after the 1967 War defeat.
Moreover, the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, and then in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, sent thousands of Egyptians to the streets in protest against Israel and the USA, as well as against Mubarak’s foreign policy in support of such imperialist wars. Also, in 2004, the
Egyptian Movement for Change, known as ‘Kifaya’ (the Arabic word for ‘Enough’), was founded to protest against the regime’s plans to extend Mubarak’s rule and the succession of his son Gamal to power. Kifaya held the banner of ‘No to emergency law, No to succession, and No to extension’, hence sending a powerful message of discontent to the regime. This was the first time since he had come to power in 1981 that Mubarak and his family became the direct target of disdain and attack. The Kifaya movement spread throughout Egypt in various provinces and districts, and even more significantly, smaller groups started springing out of it like mushrooms: Doctors for Change, Teachers for Change, Students for Change, Judges for Change, Journalists for Change, Artists for Change, Citizens against Inflation and so on. However, most of these groups were mainly composed of upper- and middle-class intellectuals, professionals, artists, writers and human rights activists, as well as students. Thus, with a wave of workers’ strikes, which was ignited by the huge number of Mahalla textile workers (25,000 workers) in the Gharbiyya governorate of Egypt in December 2006, the opposition movement acquired the economic strength it had needed all along. The workers’ strikes, sit-ins and protests solidified the movement and pushed it miles forward.17
Furthermore, during the decade preceding the 2011 January Revolution, Egypt also witnessed a significant increase in the production of novels, films, plays, music albums and other cultural products, particularly in the major cities. There was a noticeable proliferation of publishing houses, bookshops, book-signing events, new radical underground music bands, experimental theatre groups and independent filmmakers, all rising on the cultural scene. This came to characterise a flourishing urban cultural field. Such energy and vibes were accompanied by widespread Internet use which attracted tens of thousands of young people to start their own blogs. Virtual culture (particularly Facebook and Twitter) gained much momentum in Egypt a few years before the 2011 Revolution. It was striking to see the emergence of a vibrant new generation of novelists, actors, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights, bloggers, journalists, photographers and poets, many of whom have continued to play a pivotal role since the 2011 Revolution. This seems like a paradox to see such an explosion of artistic creativity and technological innovation during a decade that was characterised by economic deterioration and political repression in Egypt. Once again, it was through the field of popular culture that much of the political and social issues were critiqued and assessed.18
During the first and most decisive eighteen days of the 2011 Revolution, millions of Egyptians from all walks of life drew on their collective cultural history to create the discourse of the revolution which had spoken to the whole world: a discourse of slogans, chants, poems, popular lyrics, songs, placards, banners, posters, pictures, film clips—a discourse which articulated a revolutionary cultural vibe. In my view, it was precisely this discourse that led to the popularisation of the demands of the revolution all over the world. The 2011 January Revolution was characterised by countless slogans that escalated in tone and momentum. The protesters started off with the iconic chant al-Sha‘b Yureed Isqat al-Nizam (The People Want the Downfall of the Regime); Howwa Yimshi, Mish Hanimshi (He [Mubarak] Must Go, We are not Leaving); and al-Geish wa al-Sha‘b Eid Wahda (The Army and the People are One Hand). However, in the months succeeding the uprising, and as the military police—in cooperation with the returning CSF—began killing protesters at demonstrations, and arresting, torturing and imprisoning many of them in military prisons, the chants turned against the SCAF: Yasqut Yasqut Hokm al-‘Askar (Down Down with Military Rule); Al Sha‘b Yureed I‘dam al-Musheir (The People Want the Field Marshal [Tantawi] Hanged); Ihna el Sha‘b el Khat el Ahmar (We the People Are the Red Line). The repertoire of slogans and chants is enormous and documents the various stages of the revolution. Indeed, it needs a fuller analysis in its own right. (See for example Fig. 4.3 of the graffiti image below, which was part of a mural painted on the wall of the American University in Cairo on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, just off Tahrir Square, showing how the faces changed from Mubarak to Tantawi to Morsi, but the regime was only reproducing itself. The main caption reads as ‘The Provider Did Not Die’, which is a pun on the famous Egyptian saying: ‘The One Who Brought Children Did Not Die’.)
As more and more protesters were being killed in massacres orchestrated by the SCAF, in collaboration with the pro-Mubarak camp and the police, the image of the shahid (martyr) became, once again, the most powerful symbol in the nation’s collective consciousness as well as in the context of the revolutionary discourse. No image, no action, has been more powerful since the uprising than mothers, fathers, husbands and wives carrying pictures and posters of their loved ones who were killed in the protests. Graffiti artists turned the wall of the American University in Cairo on Mohammed
Mahmoud Street (where Fig. 4.3 was painted) into a mural for the martyrs who were shot dead on this very same street and in other protests elsewhere in the country. The authorities kept erasing these images over and again, while the artists continued to go back and repaint the wall all over again, until, in September 2015, the American university knocked down part of the wall under the pretext that a new science building would be built. The image of the martyr constituted an ever-present and haunting text in the face of the present Sisi regime. This image had to disappear from the walls; but can the regime erase it from the people’s collective memory?19 The stories of the martyrs have permeated much of the protest songs which were composed since the revolution. These two cultural media, protest/ resistance music and graffiti art, have advanced in unprecedented ways since 2011, although the revolutionary songs are no longer aired on Egyptian satellite channels since the 2013 coup. This is part of how the present regime aims to erase the cultural memory of the revolutionary discourse.20
Fig. 4.3 Picture taken by the author—A street graffiti image painted on the walls of the American University in Cairo (Mohammed Mahmoud Street, December 2012)