Mohammed Amr carried a slab of concrete torn up from the pavement on Kasr al-Aini Street in downtown Cairo. He raised it up and threw it down, smashing it into shards on the street.
Nearby the rattle of gunfire, shot skyward by Egyptian soldiers, echoed through the streets. Young men known as the “ultras” – fanatical supporters of rival Cairo football clubs, instrumental in fighting Hosni Mubarak’s security forces into the ground during the Egyptian uprising – hurled molotov cocktails at soldiers.
Amr gathered the shards of smashed pavement and began breaking them into smaller pieces.
“In the revolution we demanded four things,” he said. “Social equality, dignity, bread and freedom.
“We have got none of these things.”
It was late on Sunday evening, the third straight day of clashes between military personnel and protesters in downtown Cairo, which at that stage had left 10 people dead. Hundreds more were injured, but few severely.
Following the release of an activist – brutally beaten and allegedly electrocuted – abducted from a peaceful three week sit-in outside the parliament building by soldiers, tensions spilled over and downtown Cairo descended into chaos as protesters and military personnel clashed.
The sit-in came after a week of clashes in November – that mobilized tens of thousands of people – which left 50 activists dead: shot to death or suffocating in the thick clouds of tear gas that blanketed much of downtown Cairo.
They were calling for an end to military rule and for Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), to stand down. The first round of parliamentary elections in late November essentially diffused the movement, but a small and hard-core of activists continued the protest outside parliament.
Amr, a pile of stones built up, said he would keep protesting until the military transferred to civilian rule.
“The military has acted against the people and against the revolution.”
Similar sentiments were expressed on the streets around Tahrir Square, as resentment of SCAF increases.
Omea, a 25-year-old wishing to remain anonymous and who took part in the peaceful sit in outside parliament said nothing had improved in Egypt since SCAF took power.
“The people did not elect Tantawi – he acts in exactly the same way as Mubarak did,” she said.
“They use the same violence as the regime, the same language.”
The military’s crackdown on the recent protests has led to waves of condemnation from political figures.
Now iconic footage of a young women being brutalized by soldiers, her abaya (cloak) torn in two as a soldier stomps on her breasts, before leaving the women half-naked and motionless on the street provoked US Secretary of State Hilary Cinton to issue a stern rebuke of Egypt’s military rulers on Monday.
“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people,” she said.
However, SCAF to date has been uncompromising in its response. At a press conference held Monday, General Adel Emara denied that soldiers had used violence – instead arguing that anti-revolutionary “elements” had instigated the violence – and said, ominously: “The military answers to nobody but God Almighty himself”.
Since forcing Hosni Mubarak from power in February, SCAF has defined itself as a safeguard of the Egyptian revolution, a narrative that clashes with reality.
Since February it has arrested more than 12,000 people – tried in military courts – at a conviction rate of 93 percent, according to a September report by Human Rights Watch; while Hosni Mubarak receives due process in a civilian court. Female protesters had virginity tests forced upon them by soldiers in the Egyptian museum.
Over the course of the year, it has repeatedly stormed Tahrir Square – burning tents down and beating dissenters with truncheons.
Dissenters remain locked away in prisons, while one man, Essam Atta, died in a maximum security prison – on charges of “thuggery” – after guards allegedly turned hoses on and shoved them into his anus and mouth.
Additionally, SCAF’s constitutional proposals in November put its budget beyond civilian oversight and gave it powers rivalling those of a future president. SCAF stated that it would select the majority members for the constituent assembly, the body responsible for amending Egypt’s constitution. It also stated that any article that violates March’s constitutional decree has to be revised within 15 days, essentially giving SCAF veto powers over the new constitution.
These actions have led many to question whether SCAF is committed to transferring to a genuine democratic system of civilian rule.
Following the Free Officers coup of 1952 – led by Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Nasser – the military played a prominent role in Egyptian politics. Under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, in the 1970s, the military receded into the shadows – a move which some analysts describe as “governing but not ruling” – and police were heavily invested in.
Sadat reassessed Egypt’s geopolicy, moving away from the Soviet Union and calibrating instead to pentagon policy. His peace treaty with Israel, signed in 1979 guaranteed a close relationship with the US and removed Egypt – the Arab world’s heart, soul and most important nation – as an obstacle to US ambitions in the Middle East. This continued and expanded under Hosni Mubarak.
The peace treaty with Israel has seen Egypt receive an annual US$1.3 billion in military aid since 1979. Additionally, the US supplies Egypt with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of used military hardware each year. This treaty – unpopular with many Egyptians – acts as a powerful disincentive for SCAF to usher in genuine democratic reform.
But, more acutely, the Egyptian military is run much like a corporation. Its business interests run deep, are beyond parliamentary oversight – even state auditors are blocked from accessing military finances – and could well rely on high-level corruption and favoritism, counter to the principles of free market economies, for success.
Its economic interests remain a risky area to report on, so little is known of true dimensions.
It constructs roads and hospitals, owns companies manufacturing pharmaceuticals, bottled water and household appliances. Military companies are involved in hotel administration, car manufacturing, cleaning services and even pest control, while it owns vast amounts of prime land.
Writing in the Egyptian news site al-Masry al-Yowm, US analyst Roger Springborg argued that SCAF is attempting to ensure that it will not be subordinated to any other domestic power.
“The delay in constituting a new system of government results probably not from a change in the military’s strategic objective of ‘ruling but not governing,’ but from the tactical difficulties of forming a civilian government that forswears any meaningful control over the military.”
In a genuine democracy, Egypt’s military stands to lose much. Its attempts to ensure a privileged position in Egypt is now driving a wedge between it and the people it is responsible to and for, while causing widespread insecurity and near unrestrained violence, as the events late on Sunday night – when protesters managed to capture a soldier – show.
The soldier disappeared into a crush of bodies, his high and wild cries cut short by the fists pounding down into his face. Dozens more protesters rushed to join the mob. Some were screaming “peacefully, peacefully”. Others called for blood.
They hauled him along Kasr al-Aini street – their shadows stretched high along walls by the flames engulfing burning debris – poured quickly through the narrow alleyways off Midan Tahrir and dragged the soldier into a mosque.
A Sheikh cried that this was “the house of Allah” and violence was not permitted. Fist fights broke out between men demanding the soldier not be harmed and others seeking revenge.
Someone called that the soldier was dead (he was later released, alive), buried under the heaving mass of bodies tearing at each other.
A man emerged from the fray, carrying one of the soldier’s boots. He said he would throw it to the military to show them that they had lost one of their troops.