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Five Lessons From Egypt’s June 29th Violence

July 3, 2011

Christian Science Monitor photograph

The violence that erupted in Cairo 29 June when police clashed with protesters left more than 1,000 people injured. Many of the details remain unclear, but what is very clear is that people remain unhappy at how long it is taking to bring the main officials of the Mubarak regime to trial. Former interior minister Habib al-Adli has been sentenced to jail for corruption but he and other officials are still being tried on charges related to killing protesters.

The event, and the flurry of commentary in local and regional media, emphasizes how much change is yet required before most young urban Egyptians will be satisfied.

As for me, I take five lessons from this remembrance turned protest turned violence:

  • First, the revolution isn’t over yet.
  • Second, the martyrs remain potent symbols for the revolution.
  • Third, the Central Police Force needs to be completely reformed (or just abandoned, with real police doing their jobs).
  • Fourth, the governing institutions need to develop new rhetoric and new techniques for handling the people of Egypt.
  • And fifth, media continue to be a game changer in the ongoing revolution.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Lesson One: The revolution isn’t over yet.

The “revolution” involves a series of political and economic reform that will turn the old Egypt, the Egypt of Mubarak, into something else, a new Egypt in which the next generation will have real hopes for a better future. A great deal needs to be done, but the path is strewn with questions and ambiguities.How, exactly, should political reform move forward? How much power should newly elected governments have? How much money should Egyptians give to help the long neglected poor, or to begin to rebuild the long-neglected infrastructure (public schools, public hospitals, roads) abandoned by the regime in favor of privatization? And should they accept foreign aid to accomplish more faster, or refuse it to reduce their crippling debt sooner?

The problem is that the answers seem as elusive now as ever. “Should constitutional reform precede elections or should elections come fist”? seemed to have been resolved by the national referendum. Now, according to many media reports, it is back on the table. Five months after Mubarak stepped down, still everything seems to be on the table. The way forward is murky.

What’s more, every position, from minimal change to complete political and economic reform have their advocates. Nearly every advocate for every position calls on the symbols of the revolution, and nearly everyone accuses the other positions as “counterrevolutionary.”

Lesson Two: The martyrs remains potent symbols.

The gathering of protesters began as a memorial for several of those who died in the uprisings, with participation by their families. It was a protest against delays in prosecuting the former members of the regime accused of ordering the attacks on the protesters that led to deaths. By extension, it was a general protest against broader delays in ridding the country of the old regime and, by further extension, a protest against the slow pace of reform in general.

As I have written before, the martyrs of the uprising represent the costs of the uprising; a debt incurred on behalf of the revolution that can only be paid if the revolution is successful. If the revolution fails, they will have “died in vain.”

But the martyrs are an encompassing symbol. Their deaths stand for everything that was wrong with the system, which is a moving target. PhD student Alia Mosallem writes in an op-ed in Al-Masry Al-Youm:

The violence we see today in Tahrir represents a people fighting for justice in a system that has thus far failed. Many of us sit back and watch, arguing over the whether they deserve of our sympathies or not. Those who have doubts should speak to the families of the martyrs, hear their stories and listen to their desire to continue what their loved ones have died for.

Lesson Three: The Central Police Force needs to be completely reformed.

Central Security Forces (Amn al-Markazi), or the riot police handled the entire affair with their usual incompetence, aggression and lack of professionalism. According to the videos they shouted insults at the protesters (including mothers of martyrs), threw rocks, fired tear-gas, and waved not only police-issue riot sticks but apparently swords. This force needs to be disbanded and completely reformed as a professional peace-keeping force that can competently contain a protest or riot rather than turning it into a brawl.

The Amn al-Markazi are black uniformed, helmeted men recruited by the military to serve as the private army of former President Mubarak. They can’t really be blamed for acting unprofessionally; they are not professionals. CSF are low paid, usually uneducated, and tend to be drawn from the lower classes. In their own way, the CFP are victims. They are uprooted from their villages to serve their country as soldiers in an army unlikely to ever serve in a shooting war and instead find themselves wearing black uniforms and carrying weapons to enforce the governments will against people striking and rioting for better conditions.According to some reports, the military would sort conscripts (Egypt has mandatory military service for all adult men) by whether or not they were literate, and shunted the illiterates to the CFP under the theory that illiterates are less likely to question orders or develop ideologies. It did not always work; at times, these CSF units have risen up against Mubarak himself to demand better wages and working conditions.

These are the police who clashed with protesters in Tahrir in January along with their traditional baltagiyya allies. Paul Amer wrote last February,

The look of unenthusiastic resignation in the eyes of Amn al-Markazi soldiers as they were kissed and lovingly disarmed by protesters has become one of the most iconic images, so far, of this revolution. The dispelling of Mubarak’s authority could be marked to precisely that moment when protesters kissed the cheeks of Markazi officers who promptly vanished into puffs of tear gas, never to return.

They have returned but, alas, they have not changed. They are as much a symbol of everything wrong with the “old Egypt” as the officials whose trials continue to be delayed.

By early afternoon, eight ambulances were in Tahrir, epicenter of the revolt that toppled Mubarak on February 11, and the police had left the square. Dozens of adolescent boys, shirts tied around their heads, blocked traffic from entering Tahrir, using stones and scrap metal.

Lesson Four: The governing institutions, need to develop some new scripts.

Sending in the CSF was only one of several errors the government has made. One of the reasons people lack trust in the central institutions of government to carry out the revolution without continued protests is that they continue to act like the old regime in so very many ways.

The Ministry of the Interior claimed that they only intervened because fights broke out. According to the statement posted on their Facebook page, a second group of martyrs’ families showed up and started a fight over why they had not been invited. This might be more plausible if it did not echo the classic Mubarak frame of blaming the victims, or planting thugs within a group of protesters to start fights so that the CSF had an excuse to “intervene”, usually with excessive force.

What’s more, statements in the press suggest that far from having a positive effect, bringing in the CSF brought many people to the square specifically to fight with the police. Several people were quoted in stories as saying they went to the square with the intention to fight because they heard the police were treating the protesters badly.

The ruling military council said in a statement on its Facebook page that the events “had no justification other than to shake Egypt’s safety and security in an organised plan that exploits the blood of the revolution’s martyrs and to sow division between the people and the security apparatus.”  This claim, that everything is fine except for some unspecified evil-minded group of persons, foreign or domestic, out to deliberately disrupt the social order, is another standard that echoes the explanations the Mubarak regime used to give.

Outspoken editor Ibrahim Eissa mocked this position in his new newspaper El-Tahrir:

A plot is underway… This is what we have to believe according to SCAF and Sharaf’s cabinet. It might be true, why not? But to convince us, [they] have the small mission of answering two simple questions: Who are the plotters? Where is the plot? Where are those plotters? The real plot is the police’s and cabinet’s attempt to blame their failure and inability to run things on conspiracies…

Using Facebook to issue public statements is not enough to transform the image of this ministry (or any other); both the medium and the message must alter before people will take the commitment to change seriously. Even actions meant to be practical–like deploying the CSF–serve as symbols since they send important messages.

Lesson Five: The media continues to be a game changer.

While the SCAF and police Facebook pages are in some way just a new veneer for an old system, the fact that they exist at all is quite remarkable.

More important is the fact that people continue to be able to organize protests, and apparently call for help, via cell phone and social media networks.

Even more important is that social media allows protesters and other political voices to contest the official accounts, often in extremely compelling ways, such as posting videos of police actions to Youtube and other video sharing sites.

Finally, as Eissa’s editorial demonstrates, the mainstream news media are able to criticize, as well as to air comments from a wide variety of sources and voices. Although many newspapers and television programs continue to give pride of place to the institutions of the state, reporters interview participants in protests who not only contradict the official reports but are not afraid to give their names. In addition, op-eds and letters in the press, and call-in shows on television, provide forums for members of the public to share experiences and perspectives.

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