August 2011, Week 3


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Mon, 15 Aug 2011 20:52:39 -0400
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The World Should Be Watching Tahrir

by Joel Federman

Published on Monday,

Global media coverage of news from Egypt over the last
week was focused on the trial of former Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak. It ignored--or gave only
footnote status to--a more important development: the
forcible expulsion on Monday, August 1, of democracy
activists from Tahrir Square in Cairo, and the
occupation of the square by the Egyptian military and
police. Armed forces now surround the central square
area, literally taking up the space occupied by the
democracy movement only a few days ago.

[ Joel Federman)] Tahrir Square, Cairo, August 3, 2011.
(photo: Joel Federman)

The trial of Hosni Mubarak, who oversaw his
government's killing of more than 1,000 Egyptians,
whose only crime was peacefully protesting for basic
human rights and dignity, is an important step toward
establishing the rule of law in Egypt. But, it is only
one step toward democratic reform. That the ruling
Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) saw
fit to shut down Tahrir Square shows, at best, that
they don't understand the importance of that place for
the democratic development of Egypt.

Tahrir Square was, and is, the epicenter of social
change in Egypt. The revolution began there on January
25, and it became a community of liberation, a place
where Egyptians could voice to their deepest
aspirations for freedom, social justice and dignity. It
has been a gathering point for people coming from all
over Egypt to debate the future of their country, and
also to find and share their courage to express their
needs and values, so long crushed by the Mubarak

It has also been a genuine community, with Egyptians
sharing food, music, living space, culture, and ideas.
Dr. Pakinam El Sharkawy, Director of Cairo University's
Center for Civilization Studies and Dialogue of
Cultures, describes the experience of Tahrir Square
during the early revolutionary days as
"magnificient....It was something really spiritual. There
were gates in Tahrir, and when you entered the gates,
you feel the spirit: people sitting together, caring
for each other, loving each other. The most secure
place in Egypt was Tahrir Square. The people were
securing each other. When you ask anyone who had been
there, they have the same answers, the same

[ Wikipedia.] Tahrir Square, February 8, 2011 Photo
source: Wikipedia.

SCAF tactics since the initial closing of the square
have only escalated in violence. After the square was
cleared on Monday, August 1, the following Friday
evening, August 5, a few hundred peaceful protesters
gathered to break their Ramadan fast and briefly
demonstrate. The protesters made it clear they weren't
attempting to re-occupy the Square. But, unprovoked,
the military violently attacked the protesters. I was a
witness to this attack.

The protesters were on an island of the square that was
open earlier in the day, not the center area that has
been cordoned off by the police since Monday. They
shared food with each other. Then, they demonstrated,
with speeches, chants, and songs.

The army gathered across the street, but it seemed from
their formations that they were just there to stop
protesters from blocking traffic or reoccupying the
central island of the square. Then, without any
provocation, the army charged the island. This was not
a standard police-style block formation to clear
protesters out of a public space. This was a brutal
attack by the military on completely unarmed, 100%
peaceful protesters, whose protest was largely

The soliders beat dozens of protesters
indiscriminately, most of whom were simply trying to
escape. I repeatedly saw groups of five to ten soldiers
chase down boys who couldn't be any older than ten
years old and beat them with yard-long sticks. The
soldiers chased protesters many blocks from Tahrir
Square, all the way to the Kasr-al-Nile Bridge half a
mile away, for the purpose of beating them.

Many dozens of bullets were fired as the soldiers
chased the protesters through the streets, presumably
into the air. Though there haven't been reports of
anyone being shot, though many protesters were
hospitalized from their beating injuries.

Clearly, the purpose of the attack was not just to
clear that little island of the square. The level of
brutality suggests that its true purpose was to strike
fear in the hearts of anyone who wants to make public
political expression in the main town square of Egypt.

In terms of world media attention, the Egyptian regime
is getting away with tremendous brutality, possibly
because the brutality in Syria at the moment is even
worse, and the trial of Mubarak draws attention away
from the suppression of the people power demonstrations
that brought about his overthrow. [ Joel Federman)]
Soldier reaching back to beat protester with stick,
Tahrir Square, Cairo, August 5, 2011. (photo: Joel

Tahrir Square represents both the symbol and substance
of democracy in Egypt. Democracy and freedom of
assembly are part of the same principle. If you shut
down the right of people to assemble peacefully to
express their hopes, fears and dreams, you can't claim
to be a democracy, even an emerging one. SCAF cannot
legitimately assert that it is facilitating the
transition to democracy in Egypt while suppressing the
fundamental democratic human right of "freedom of
peaceful assembly and association," as enshrined in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20).

When asked about the importance of Tahrir Square, Sabah
Hamamou, an editor at Al-Ahram, a prominent Egyptian
newspaper, said in an interview, "Democracy is people
finding space to express the things they want. But
things start with a space." In Egypt, that space begins
in, and emanates from, Tahrir Square.

Despite the brutality, the democratic movement in Egypt
shows extraordinarily admirable resilience and courage.
In the wake of the events of last Friday, a broad
coalition of organizations organized a new protest in
Tahrir Square, which took place Friday. Egypt's Sufis,
in coalition with Copt Christians and secular groups
such as the April 6 Youth Movement, organized the
demonstration for an Egyptian civil state, as opposed
to a religion-based government, as was advocated in the
Square by conservative Muslims a few weeks ago. The
military police chased protesters with sticks and fired
shots in the air when they attempted to retake the
central island of the Square, but the main protest was
allowed to continue as planned. The status of the
Square is clearly in flux. What happens in Tahrir
Square in the coming weeks will be an important measure
of the state of democratic change in Egypt.

Joel Federman teaches at Saybrook University in San
Francisco. He recently returned from a week-long visit
to Egypt, where he met with democracy activists and


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