Today, January 25th 2012, marks an historic date for Egypt. On this day last year millions of people stood in the now iconic Tahrir Square, peacefully demanding 'Bread, Freedom and Dignity'. The number of protesters gathered in Tahrir, asking for their basic human rights, was unprecedented in Egypt's history. It was not only the size of the assembled crowd that made this day different, but its diversity. During the 18 days of uprising people from all walks of life, religions, ideologies and ages stood together as one in the square for a common purpose: to end thirty years of brutal dictatorship.
On the 11th of February 2011, Hosni Mubarak finally capitulated to the pressure from the millions of Egyptian protesters and stepped down as President of Egypt, handing over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The atmosphere in Egypt in those days following was exhilarating, electrifying. The people had achieved a peaceful, leaderless revolution. Millions of jubilant Egyptians chanted together 'The army and the people are one hand'.
I was skeptical when I heard this. Coming from Nicaragua and as a human rights defender who has witnessed the iron grip of military dictatorships all over Latin America, I was fearful that a military rule could never uphold the principles of human rights, democracy and civil liberties. Sadly, my fears were justified. It is evident that the army and the people were never 'one hand.' When the SCAF assumed power, they vowed to put an end to the emergency law, to relinquish power to an elected president within 6 months, among many other promises. None of these pledges have been fulfilled. It was perhaps naïve to think that an army could peacefully protect and defend the rights of the civilian population.
The past year has been marked by brutal suppression of peaceful protests by army officials. Instead of protecting Egyptians, SCAF used extremely violent tactics such as tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition to disperse protesters in Tahrir Square. They are responsible for the deaths of at least 41 civilians over the past year.
SCAF retained the Emergency Law, a thirty year old relic of the Mubarak regime which allows for abuse and detention of any citizen who is critical of the government. Today, Egypt's penal code still contains articles that provide prison terms for any person whose speech it deems to be 'insulting' or 'defaming'. According to Human Rights Watch, SCAF has tried more than 12,000 civilians under military tribunals since January 2011, some of whom are children under the age of 15. The Emergency law hinders all types of freedoms of expression in Egypt, and suppresses the freedom of all citizens to voice their opinion without fear of prosecution.
In recent days the military rulers have made a series of 'concessions,' intended to appease protestors and mislead the international community.
Yesterday, the day before the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's ruling general, announced the partial lifting of the Emergency Law with the exceptions of cases of 'thuggery.' As many human rights advocates point out, since the definition of 'thuggery' remains at the governments' discretion, the law is, de facto, still in operation.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, called it an 'invitation to continued abuse... January 25 is the first anniversary of the day when Egyptians stood up together to demand an end to police abuse and the state of emergency... It is an insult to all those calling for a return to the rule of law to make excuses to keep this state of emergency, used abusively for so many years, in place."
To the dismay of the protesters, the US has called the lifting of the Emergency Law a "major step toward the normalization of political life.' According to State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, they are looking for clarification of that 'little footnote,' thuggery.
The US government has once again missed the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Egyptian people who are fighting for a democratic Egypt. The Obama administration is equivocating at the critical moment, just as he did in the days leading up to Mubarak's fall.
Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch, told the Washington Post, "This is the classic pre-demonstration concession, or in this case an attempt at portraying something as a concession... the military's whole intention is to give themselves power over the judiciary."
Maikel Nabil, an activist who criticised the violations of SCAF on his blog, was detained on February 26th 2011 and sentenced to three years in prison. Nabil was released on January 24th 2012. In addition, Egypt's military rulers have pledged that they will release almost two thousand other prisoners on the 26th of January. These releases - if they do actually take place - are another disingenuous bid by SCAF to pacify the Egyptian people and court favour with the international community. Filmmaker Aalam Wassef accused SCAF in the Guardian newspaper, on the 22nd of January, of 'offering empty gestures in place of genuine reform. "It's a political concession, though a very provocative one," he said. "How dare they call it a pardon for Maikel when it is they, the generals, who should be requesting a pardon from the people?"
The pivotal role played by women in the January 25th revolution should not be underestimated. It was previously unheard of in Egyptian history. Thousands of women stood in Tahrir Square demanding freedom, equal rights and dignity. But their demand for equal rights has not been fulfilled under the military regime. The average representation of women in government in Arab nations is 13 per cent, only 2 per cent of the newly elected Egyptian parliament are women.
A report published by Nazra for Feminist Studies documents how the SCAF is trying to stop women from demonstrating and fighting for their human rights, by using the same tactics used by the Mubarak regime: sexual harassment, verbal and physical abuse. There have been countless well documented accounts of these horrific abuses of women by the military regime over the past year.
On the 25th of November 2011, human rights activist and journalist Mona el Tahawy was brutalized and sexually harrassed by SCAF police, then detained for twelve hours without medical care. She suffered from two broken hands, and multiple injuries all over her body. Eltahawy recounts "Five or six men surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count of how many hands tried to get into my trousers."
The abuse of Mona el Tahawy at the hands of SCAF police was barbaric. Tragically this treatment was not an exception. Until now, women cannot demonstrate for their rights peacefully in Egypt without a constant fear of being sexually harassed by SCAF police. The footage of the 'woman in the blue bra' - who was stripped and brutally beaten by army soldiers, then dragged helplessly along the ground - was unspeakable, and caused outrage all over the world.
Salwa Hosseini told Amnesty International that she was detained, stripped and searched in a room with two open doors and a window, through which male soldiers looked and took pictures of the naked women. According to Amnesty, 'The women were then subjected to 'virginity tests' in a different room by a man in a white coat. They were threatened that "those not found to be virgins" would be charged with prostitution... one woman who said she was a virgin but whose test supposedly proved otherwise was beaten and given electric shocks.'
Rasha Azeb, a journalist, told Amnesty that when she and 17 other women were detained, they were 'handcuffed, beaten with sticks and hoses, given electric shocks in the chest and legs, and called "prostitutes". Rasha Azeb was released, but her fellow detainees were taken to a military prison in Heikstep, and brought before a military court on March 11th, 2011. Human rights organizations vigorously oppose the trial of civilians by military tribunal. The women were ultimately released on March 13th 2011, some with one year suspended sentences.
Egypt is a signatory of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Virginity tests are in explicit violation of the convention.
Samira Ibrahim was detained in prison for four days along with 6 other women. During that time, she says 'soldiers repeatedly beat her, gave her electric shocks, screamed at her, and then forced her to strip for a man in military clothes who checked if she was a virgin.' Samira Ibrahim took the military to the Egyptian court, and on the 27th of December 2011, the court outlawed virginity testing. The Washington post called Samira Ibrahim 'the woman behind Egypt's ban of virginity tests.'
Actions like Samira Ibrahim's are the beginning of the road to a free Egypt that recognizes and grants women their rights and dignity in Egyptian society. On December 20th 2011, thousands of women marched in Tahrir Square to denounce the brutal behavior of SCAF towards women, the largest women's rights protest in Egypt's history.
But the ban on virginity tests, like the definition of 'thuggery' under the 'lifted' Emergency Law, leaves much room for other abuse. As Amnesty International unequivocally states, "Women and girls must be able to express their views on the future of Egypt and protest against the government without being detained, tortured, or subjected to profoundly degrading and discriminatory treatment..."
Today, one year later, protesters are back in Tahrir Square, to finish what they started. This time, they are demanding the immediate removal of SCAF and the handing over of power to a democratically elected government, the end of the Emergency law and military tribunals, and the release of all political prisoners. The Egyptians will no longer sit back and watch their rights being stripped away. They are challenging the army over issues such as military trials for civilians, the return of media censorship, and the delay in transition to an elected government.
They are challenging the autocratic military rule through peaceful protest and they have been expressing their concerns through a renaissance of music, poetry, and art.
First Lieutenant Mahmoud Sobhi El Shinawi, a policeman and trained marksman, has been captured in videos shooting protesters in the eye. Shinawi, known as the 'Eye Hunter,' is thought to have blinded at least five people. One of his victims, Ahmed Harrara, told CNN that he'd arrived in Tahrir Square around 3 p.m. Saturday [the 19th of November, 2011] "and joined the front lines in (the) street battle... Around 3 a.m. I was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet from about a distance of 7 to 10 meters (23 to 33 feet)," he said. CNN goes on to report that he subsequently lost his other eye, before falling to the ground during a tear gas attack. Ahmed Harrara has become a hero of the Egyptian revolution.
The Middle East Research and Information Project describes how the artist Mu'tazz Nasr created what became an iconic emblem of the uprising: a one-eyed lion. "Every time I walked across the Qasr al-Nil bridge," he says, "I felt the lion was a witness to what was happening in the square." The image was shared on the Internet, and protesters began to apply real eye patches to statues around Cairo: to the lion, and to other figures immortalized in downtown squares, like Naguib Mahfouz, Simon Bolivar and Tal'at Harb, the early twentieth-century captain of industry and banking "The inspiration just spread," Nasr says. "Maybe there were many of us thinking the same way."
Apart from removing the head of the old regime, the ruling body is still very much alive, but as much as SCAF would like to silence the Tahrir protesters, they cannot undo what has happened to each and every Egyptian, 'a psychological revolution,' according to Egyptian author Khaled Alkhamissi, "Egyptians have to understand that what has happened amounts to a social revolution, that the political revolution will come." January 25th, 2011 may not have led directly to a democratic, free Egypt, but it was definitely the first step, as the most important part has already been achieved- The barrier of fear to demand basic human rights and dignity has been broken. Everyday, Egyptians are speaking out against the crimes of SCAF, and will not rest until the military officers responsible for the heinous human rights violations are held accountable. As Egyptian journalist Hania Sholkamy writes "The past year may not have delivered democracy, but it has enabled Egyptians to challenge autocracies."
The Egyptian peoples' revolution must not be allowed to be hijacked by the military. The Egyptians, more than ever, need the support of the international community during this critical period, to achieve their goals. Now is the time for President Obama to get off the fence and stop equivocating. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with the Egyptian people and support their aspirations to establish a democratic society. The international community must echo the protesters' call for the immediate removal of SCAF, for military officials to be held accountable for their crimes, and for the handover of power to an elected government.