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Egypt Revolution: With Mubarak Gone And Elections Underway, Protesters Face Bloody Crossroads

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Egyptian protesters shout anti-military ruling council slogans during a protest at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt on Dec. 23, 2011. Several thousand Egyptians rallied in Cairo's central Tahrir Square Friday to denounce violence against protesters, especially outraged by images of women protesters dragged by their hair, beaten and kicked by troops.
Egyptian protesters shout anti-military ruling council slogans during a protest at Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt on Dec. 23, 2011. Several thousand Egyptians rallied in Cairo's central Tahrir Square Friday to denounce violence against protesters, especially outraged by images of women protesters dragged by their hair, beaten and kicked by troops.

CAIRO -- On a mild afternoon in mid November, a little more than a week before Egypt was due to begin voting in its first democratic election since the fall of president Hosni Mubarak, a boy in a black beret paced atop a police van.

"Salmiya, salmiya" -- peacefully, peacefully -- young demonstrators in Tahrir Square's nervous crowd urged the boy. The van's windows were already smashed in, its body bearing marks of the crowd's frustration. In the early hours of the day, the police had broken up a small tent city in the square, beating sleeping protesters with batons. Police control of the square was short-lived. Their retreat left behind the police van, but protesters worried the boy would incite another attack.

Throughout the early days of the revolution in February, salmiya had been a slogan of sorts, a way to both reinforce -- and perhaps project -- an aura of nonviolence upon the uprising. It wasn't always enough then, and wasn't on this day. In the distance, up Mohamed Mahmoud Street, flanks of riot gear-clad police could be seen moving in. Tear gas began to fill the square again.

People ran screaming in all directions.

Back at the van, one of the protesters raised his fist in the air over the crowd, joining the boy. "Mish salmiya!" he yelled: not peacefully.

****

Nine months after the fall of Mubarak, the Egyptian revolution has found itself at a bloody crossroads. The elections that began in late November are ongoing, but even before the first ballot had been cast, revolutionaries were already questioning the vote's legitimacy. In the eyes of many of them, the interim military council that took over for Mubarak, and had promised to steward the nation through its transition to democracy, was an outright failure. The Egyptians in Tahrir Square in February had put their faith in the military, by many measures the most popular institution in the country. "The people and the Army are one hand" -- eid wahda in Arabic -- the revolutionaries said at the time.

Now, they are frustrated and despairing. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as the military's leadership committee is known, has continued many of the most vile abuses of the Mubarak era: killing demonstrators, detaining bloggers without trial, and reportedly subjecting female protesters to gruesome "virginity tests," which they defended as the only way to prevent women from claiming they had been raped in detention. Around Tahrir Square, revolutionaries argued over the best way to move the revolution forward: participate in a flawed and potentially bankrupt election process, or stay on the street and fight?

If the failure of the interim regime to bring about an orderly transition wasn't already evident, it became so in mid-December as the military attacked protesters who had been camped outside Parliament for weeks. Using batons, electric prods, and sheets of glass thrown from the tops of buildings, military policemen swarmed the streets, lashing out at anyone in their path. One widely viewed amateur video shot during those clashes showed soldiers dragging a female protester down the street, ripping off her abaya to reveal her bare stomach and blue bra. A masked security officer then stomps on her chest. Protesters, for their part, fought back, throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, and even unleashing fireworks at the security officials.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to the crackdown with her strongest remarks yet, calling it "shocking" and a "disgrace," while at the same time urging the protesters to "refrain from acts of violence." In a controversial essay, Steven A. Cook, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations who recently returned from Cairo, wrote that the fighting, particularly on the part of civilians, had produced a "warped, demented, bizarro version of Tahrir Square."

"The country has retreated from the moment of empowerment and national dignity that the uprising symbolized and is now grappling with a squalid politics and the normalization of violence," Cook wrote. "What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle, which left 10 dead and hundreds injured, didn't seem to have a point."

Egyptians, too -- including some of the most influential revolutionary activists -- worried that the spike in violence, and the protesters' continued participation in it, might be a step backward for the revolution. "Of course I'm concerned about it," said one leading activist, asking that he not be identified, amid the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in November.

Even before the recent resumption of fighting, the protracted sit-ins and demonstrations that had periodically commandeered Tahrir Square since the fall of Mubarak -- and that were blamed for everything from a steep drop off in tourism to increased traffic -- were perceived less and less favorably by the general public. Polls taken by Gallup over the summer showed that between 80 and 90 percent of the country viewed continued protests as "a bad thing."

But contrary to Cook's claim, and the presumptions of many others, protesters say the turn toward violence this fall wasn't without purpose -- indeed, it wasn't really even much of a turn. "When people talk about the great peaceful revolution, they forget about Jan. 28, when people burned more than 100 police stations," said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a 28-year-old activist and human rights worker with the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights.

Even the frequent use of the term salmiya understated just how often the original revolution was conducted gruffly, even violently: For every suspected informant for the police who was ejected peacefully from Tahrir, there were many others who were detained in urine-stained cells underneath it, or in the commandeered offices of a travel agency, where they were slapped, interrogated, and paraded for visiting journalists.

Indeed, one of the most significant days of the revolution came several days into a Tahrir sit-in in February when Mubarak supporters stormed the square on camels. The spectacle of the fighters on camelback stole much of the media spotlight, but the 20 hours of fighting by the protesters that followed was a turning point in the revolution: Had the protesters not employed violence to hold the square, the uprising might have been over.

Eleven thousand people were wounded during the initial uprising that overthrew Mubarak, and at least 800 were killed. As Ennarah and others like him see it, the violence is an inescapable reaction to a brutal regime whose vestiges have yet to be eradicated.

"You have to remember that the revolution fundamentally was a revolution against the police state," said Hani Shukrallah, the 71-year-old editor of Egypt's Al Ahram Weekly, whose son has been a regular in Tahrir. "And now it's become a kind of vendetta, also: 'You've killed a thousand of us in January and February, you continue to kill, and we are not going to allow this to happen anymore.'"

It can be difficult to comprehend, from an outside vantage point, the depths of the humiliation and dehumanization that Egyptians of all classes were subjected to on a regular basis under Mubarak -- and the amount of anger that has engendered. To people like Ennarah and Shukrallah, the revolution was never just a battle for economic justice or political rights, it was a struggle for human dignity.

"I think at the heart of it, we're all motivated by one thing, which is anger and the refusal of state brutality," Ennarah said. "It manifests itself in different ways for different people, so while I may be able to translate it into political demands, many other people may not be able to express them -- or they are much more oppressed than I am, or they have much less to lose. ... I'm not calling for violence, but I'm saying it's very natural."

The same activist who had confided that he was worried about violence sapping support for the revolution also told me a story. It was Jan. 25, the first day of widespread clashes in Cairo between protesters and the security forces, and the activist found himself on one of the bridges separating Tahrir Square, in downtown, from an island in the Nile called Zamalek. Police in riot gear had arrived to block the protesters from reaching the square.

"I remember being one of the last people to finally give up and leave the bridge," said the activist, who is by nature a soft-spoken intellectual. "Until the end I was standing there, just staring at the police in their riot gear, pointing their weapons at us, and forcing us to do what they wanted us to do. And I remember thinking, 'If I could, I would kill them all.'"

****

For the revolutionary politicians who had spent months preparing for a chance to participate in democratic elections, the spike in violence in November was more than a little inconvenient. One day, while the fighting was ongoing, I paid a visit to Ahmed Naguib, a revolutionary youth leader who was a long-shot candidate for a seat in Parliament. Back in February, Naguib had been a ground organizer in Tahrir, a de facto leader and spokesman by virtue of his boundless energy and perfect English. But as we sat drinking tea in a stairwell of a building where Naguib was meeting with local newscasters, the frustrations of the faltering political process seemed to have defeated him.

"This is all our fault," Naguib said, slumped against the railing. "We left the square too early, and now 30 people are dead. It's very hard to run for office and have a revolution at the same time."

A few days later, Naguib quit his race. "To hell with the elections," he said. "To hell with all of it."

The choice may have been obvious for Naguib, but it was not easy -- especially for the more developed liberal political parties. Throughout the fighting in Tahrir, the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party, by far the most established of the post-Mubarak political forces, declined to halt its campaigning. The Brotherhood, which long ago renounced its terrorist activities, had continued to function underground during Mubarak's time, building up a massive, loyal following among Islamists who opposed the secular nature of the regime. Despite its anti-Mubarak impulses, the party had played little overt role in the leader's overthrow, and now stood to gain the most from a successful election -- indeed, in the first rounds it would go on to take the largest share of the vote, more than 40 percent.

This left liberal, secular parties with a dreary choice: turn their back on the youth fighting in the streets, or sacrifice the elections to the Muslim Brotherhood and other more established parties that are composed of remnants of the old regime and that don't much care for grassroots action.

"We are in a real dilemma," said Raied Salama, a political adviser to Egypt's newly formed Social Democratic Party, a few days before the vote. "If we are not in the elections and the Muslim Brotherhood is, then the Parliament will be theirs, and it will be the end of the democratic process that we are going through. On the other hand, if we do this, we cannot satisfy the people in the street."

The SDP eventually decided to stay in the race, but some of the staff said they were in conflicted over the choice. "I feel like Tahrir is one thing, and all the political parties are something else," said Hala Mostafa, one of the party's spokesmen. "Personally, I am with Tahrir. I say it all the time."

*****

Down in Tahrir Square, the elections were far from anyone's mind. One night in November, shortly after midnight, a young fighter gave me a brief tour of the battle zone on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. On the roads leading to the front lines, it was virtually pitch-dark, except for the occasional camera phone flash or flare from a Molotov. Still, the street was crammed with people.

The roads were impassable, charred and rubble-strewn, the scent of tear gas mixing with Cairo's cloud of exhaust. At first it was borderline pleasant, like the first bite of a chili, but then, without warning, it surged through the senses. As I neared the front, my nose started to run and my eyes filled with tears and felt like they were coated with lacquer; I couldn't keep them open for more than a second.

I stopped at one of the dozens of people holding a spray bottle with a homemade concoction -- a mixture of antacid and saline solution -- that was being sprayed on fighters' faces. The young man with the bottle removed my glasses, sprayed several squirts in my eyes, and placed the glasses back on my face. I could see again.

My guide took me down a side street leading directly to Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Half a block away, we could see the front line. The police, behind a row of shields, inched backward. Sensing an opportunity, the young combatants surged around us, charging forward and throwing rocks. On Mohamed Mahmoud, I saw half a dozen Molotov cocktails fly in the direction of the cops.

My guide cautioned me not to get too caught up in the forward progress; it was an illusion, he said, the ebb and flow of a battle line that never shifted more than a few dozen meters. Sure enough, within a few minutes, the police came charging back, firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Wounded fighters were carried past us, toward the clinics in Tahrir, before we too retreated to safety.

It wasn't exactly a fair fight. In the first few days, police killed more than two dozen civilians, many of them during a brutal raid of Tahrir on one evening. The riot police, aided by military officers with shotguns, swept through the square shortly after sundown, burning tents and beating demonstrators. In one video that surfaced on YouTube, an officer could be seen dragging what looked to be a dead body across the square during the raid, and depositing it in a pile of trash bags. But they failed to hold the square. Within an hour, the protesters had taken it back in a charge that seemed suicidal, but ended with success.

But the teenagers fighting back were equally the aggressors, at times even more so. They fought with determination, but also an inchoate rage -- violence blending from means to an end in itself. Several times over the course of the fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, journalists observing the battle saw truces break down when the protesters fired first. At one point, a revolutionary named Amr Bassiouny posted online a "Violent Protest Tactical Guide." He advertised it as a handbook for people who were new to this form of disobedience, and who "might want to get close to the action and see what is happening or maybe even join the fighting yourself."

If the fighters on Mohamed Mahmoud seemed all too eager to engage in combat, several of them suggested that they felt fully justified in doing so. "These are the people who have nothing in Egypt," my guide had said, when we were in the thick of the fight. "They were the ones who were the most abused by Mubarak."

One afternoon amid the fighting in November, I met with another protester in one of the cafes that pepper the alleyways around Tahrir Square.

Mohammed Magdy is a middle-class activist who found himself swept up in the clashes in late January, when he was shot multiple times with buckshot by the riot police. Steel pellets were embedded in his head, leg, arm and hand. During the camel battle, Magdy was a footsoldier on the front lines, staying up all night and throwing so many rocks at the Mubarak supporters that he could barely lift his arm the next morning. For months, the 28-year-old bore his wounds like souvenirs. When he finally had the last pellets surgically removed from his left hand, he posted pictures of them on Facebook.

"The revolution hasn't begun yet," Magdy said, as he sipped on watery Turkish coffee and smoked an Egyptian-made Cleopatra cigarette. He seemed more weary than I remembered him. When we first met in February, Magdy was a buoyant presence in Tahrir. Wearing a near-constant smile, Magdy -- who went by the nickname Snoobi, for the cartoon character Snoopy -- spent nearly every day jotting down the jokes and outlandish rumors he heard about the revolution in a little notebook, and sharing them with anyone who would listen.

Now, Magdy seemed to look with indifference at the political scene his revolution had helped make possible. He had no idea whether he would vote -- he hadn't even figured out who the candidates in his district were. Instead, he talked solemnly about how the protesters had come to lose faith in the military, and the progress of the revolution.

"After Mubarak fell, we decided we'd give the Army a chance." he said. "We trusted the Army. But then they started to use these dirty methods -- arresting protesters, beating them, virginity tests. I watched this happen, and it felt like this is another Army than the one we trusted."

"Okay, yeah, there's no more President Mubarak," he continued. "We did throw his first lady out, and all that shit. Okay, so there's some change. But I don't feel like we've accomplished a lot. It's just the same, with different people."

***

A retired top-level Army officer assured me over dinner one night in late November that everything was going according to plan: The military would deliver Egypt through its transition to a state of stable, civilian democracy. "The SCAF doesn't want the trouble of ruling the country," he said. "They just want to keep the country from turning into another Libya, or Yemen."

One potential problem with SCAF's plan to shepherd the nation to democracy, though, is that it leaves the military in possession of many of the country's largest industries. The Army is a hugely profitable machine, controlling around a third of the country's economy, by some estimates.

Even those who accept that the military doesn't want to retain a prominent role in the government forever believe that wrenching financial concessions from it will be next to impossible. "My feeling is [the SCAF] wants to have a safe retreat," said Mohammed Aboul Ghar, a senior liberal politician. "A safe retreat and all their previous privileges."

The military's strategy, it seems, has been to downplay the extent to which Egyptians remain unhappy. "We were all very proud of everyone who was in the square during the 18 days," the retired general said, reflecting on the early uprisings in January and February. He waved off the protesters who continued to fight as of little concern. "Now look at who it is. It is not the same people."

He suggested, as the SCAF did in a press conference a few days earlier, that the protesters were being paid by foreign governments, and said the Army had collected solid evidence to that effect. This evidence, he pledged, would be released within six months.

When asked what had happened to eid wahda -- the old chant that the Army and the people are "one hand" -- he replied mechanically, "There is still eid wadha. The people love the Army."

They didn't love the Army at the encampment at Parliament, where the holdouts from Mohamed Mahmoud street moved after the military shut down the fighting. There, the rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its emphasis on economic justice, was everywhere. The phrases "Occupy Cabinet" or "Occupy Maspero" (the state television headquarters), were graffittied everywhere on the building's exterior walls. Elsewhere, someone had spray-painted an Egyptian version of a symbol of the OWS movement: a pharaoh in a Guy Fawkes mask. It was this sit-in that would later be swarmed by the Army, in the brutal crackdown of December.

The comparison between Tahrir Square and the Occupy movement never quite fit, in large part because it seemed not to grapple with the extent of the brutality that Egypt's protesters had faced, and the severity of the repression and torture state police carried out over decades. But the analogy was becoming inescapable. When some young protesters brought up the police raids against Occupy Oakland, they rejected the notion that they had faced incomparably worse violence in Cairo: "Police are police," one said simply.

The demonstrators in Tahrir and Zuccotti Park have been wrestling with the same question of whether to participate in the current system to make it slightly less unfair, or to reject it entirely. And those in Cairo and in occupied encampments across the globe also seem to share an understanding of the politics of place, the symbolism of occupying a particular piece of ground.

Nevertheless, the violent confrontations can leave the downtime seeming uninspired. In contrast to the frenzy of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the sit-in felt stagnant.

When I first saw Muhammed Agiery, with his billowing scarf and a sketchpad under his arm, I thought he was an artist. In fact, he said, he has a master's degree from the London School of Economics. Thirty years old, he had grown up in the industrial city of Port Said, but more recently settled in Cairo in order to protest. For most of the five days of skirmishes on Mohamed Mahmoud, he was on the front lines, and he bore deep wounds in his calf.

Still, when asked why he fought, Agiery spoke only of the raw emotions inspired by state repression.

"It's not anger, not frustration," he said. "It's difficult to explain. Before the first wave of the resistance, we had no freedom at all. But once you taste it, it's more painful to lose even a little of it. Life is not worth living without that freedom -- and now you know."

A taste of righteous violence can be just as addictive.

"To tell you the truth," Agiery confided, as we stood under the one working streetlight next to the main gates of the Parliament, "I really miss the fight."

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