Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The revolution betrayed? [in Egypt]

by Sarah Carr - Mon, 14/03/2011

Cairo Airport new terminal makes its visitors feel slightly Lilliputian, with its lofty ceilings and ginormous escalators suspended in space.

On Friday, the effect was compounded because of the terminal's emptiness. There was a small gathering around the single open entrance, of families unwilling or unable to pay LE5 (thank you Ahmed Shafiq) each for the privilege of waiting for loved ones inside the terminal, which when we went in was unnaturally quiet.

Killing time waiting for the flight to arrive, we went to a fast-food establishment (empty) and got talking to a manager there who said that not only is the number of flights down, but that flights are 70 percent under capacity. “But every day it gets better,” he said, unconvincingly.

If I was sitting in England surrounded by tourist agency catalogues deciding where to spend my hard-earned annual leave I wouldn't go to Egypt.

The country is often promoted as a “land of wonders”, and this is particularly true at the moment. Tourists can wonder whether they have enough time to sprint out for a late-night snack before curfew ends. They can wonder why the army, in apparent coordination with unidentified plain-clothed men, are physically attacking and detaining peaceful protesters around Tahrir. They can wonder why there are sounds of screaming coming from the section of the Egyptian Museum commandeered by the army. They can wonder how 13 people died during clashes on Tuesday in Moqattam as the army watched.

The last time I went to the Tahrir sit-in, approximately an hour before it was broken up, I walked past a disheveled-looking man furiously denouncing the protesters and their mothers. I have encountered similar antagonism towards the demonstrators numerous times, as part of the wave of hysterical cheek-slapping about protests that reached its zenith after the resignation of Ahmed Shafiq.

The anti-protest camp seem to be of the opinion that the Egyptian revolution can be safely filed in the Out tray and that protests must end. Because if they don't Egypt will self-combust.

Before it was violently broken up, the Tahrir sit-in was singled out in particular as the source of all Egypt's woes, on a national and personal level. It was as if these 500 people sitting on a roundabout were sabotaging Suez Canal shipping or threatening to sell Luxor's antiquities to the Iranians or had deliberately hidden your car keys when you were already late for work.

Agree or disagree with the wisdom of the Tahrir sit-in in tactical terms, it is a mystery how anyone can suggest that a small group of people exercising their right to protest at the site of a peaceful movement which inspired the world does more damage to Egypt's image than videos of the army violently ripping said protest apart with the assistance of armed men.

Newly elected Prime Minister Essam Sharaf recently described Egyptian national security as “a red wall, not a red line”. The fact that national security has suddenly grown vertically by several meters may explain the silence of his cabinet in the face of continued abuses by the Egyptian army.

On the day it broke up the Tahrir protest, the army rounded up an estimated 170 people and detained them at the Cairo Museum where, Human Rights Watch says, some of them were tortured. One of those released, singer Ramy Essam, emerged with his back a Spaghetti Junction of angry red welts.

Another, actor Aly Sobhy, appeared handcuffed on Egyptian state television where he was described as a “thug”. Sobhy was subsequently released on Saturday night. Hundreds of others were not.

There remains a popular reluctance to accept that the revered army is capable of impropriety of any kind against citizens. Alleging that the army engages in abuses is like suggesting that Santa goes to people's houses and steals jewelery in order to support his crack cocaine habit.

It is clear firstly, that the army does not possess the skills to police civilians whom it treats like prisoners of war. Secondly, that the army is becoming increasingly fed up with filling in for the police, who are still apparently sulking despite Interior Minister Mansour El-Essawy's announcement last week that they would grace us once again with their presence. Lastly, continued incidents of torture and illegal detention indicate that while the uniforms may be different, institutionally nothing has changed; the same power structures, the same cruelty and the same lack of accountability.

I discovered this at the airport. I was there to meet my friend Per Bjorklund, a Swedish journalist who in 2009 was denied entry into Egypt, his home for the previous three years. State security investigations officers cited “security” concerns as the reason.

Per booked his ticket almost immediately after ex-president Hosni Mubarak was removed.

He sent me an SMS from passport control. “Trouble”, it read. Approximately 40 minutes later he was back on the plane he had arrived on. Per had made the reasonable assumption that since Mubarak is now persona non grata, enemies of the security apparatus over which he presided--and which drew up the list of people banned from entering Egypt--would now be able to return.

“Security rules are what run this country,” an officer told Per, and it was these “rules” which fueled the anger of the uprising against the Mubarak regime. The failure of the Sharaf government to address these power structures threatens to betray the revolution.

Sarah Carr is a journalist and senior researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.