Protesters still face challenges in post-revolutionary Egypt
31 May 2011

In post-revolutionary Egypt, freedom of expression is yet to be a given.

On 15 May, for instance, scores of protesters commemorating the Palestinian exodus of 1948 near the Israeli embassy were beaten and shot. At least 350 were injured and 160 arrested and transferred to military prisons. They were charged with “destruction of public property with the intention of attacking the embassy; creating mayhem; use of force against public servants (police and armed forces); endangering the public and public transportation means; joining a gang with the intention of harming social peace”.

Several of those detained have been released on probation, ranging from six to twelve months after being sentenced by a military court. Some remain in prison.

Since the end of Mubarek’s reign in February, there have been 5,600 such military trials sentencing civilians. That estimate is already couple of weeks old, said Human Rights Watch’s Heba Morayef. The number today is probably much higher.

The interim government claims its heavy-handedness is necessary to control saboteurs and criminals who have sought to take advantage of the lax security climate in the aftermath of the revolution as the police forces are replaced by an army untrained for urban policing tasks. In reality, army firepower has been directed, at times with fatal consequences, towards civilian protesters.

On 22 May, the army issued a statement accusing “some foreign elements claiming heroism and nationalism of issuing false statements developed by their sick imagination to incite against some members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) leadership and to create discord between the army and the people.” The communiqué goes on to warn that “those external elements” are sending their followers to infiltrate “the free revolutionary demonstrations” in order to instigate a clash between the people and the security forces — a declaration widely seen as a veiled threat.

But this was not much of a deterrent for Egyptians.

On 23 May, more than 370 bloggers defied a journalistic ban on broaching the subject of the army and heeded a call to write a post “evaluating the performance of the SCAF as the ruler of the country, with the aim of providing constructive criticism.” They criticized military trials for civilians, the emergency law, and the ruling junta’s failure to prosecute members of the old regime. On Twitter, the #NoSCAF hashtag was assuredly the most widely used all day, and served both as a repository for vocal objections and an increasingly loud call for action.

A massive protest scheduled last Friday, 27 May, was met with the most unexpected reaction from the army: the army issued its communiqué number 58 declaring that “the armed forces have decided not to be present in the protests locations to avoid such risks (of division between people and army), counting on the revolution youth who will take over the organising and defense” — that is, since you’re protesting our behaviour, we won’t be protecting you from any potential attack. The protest nevertheless went ahead as planned, peacefully; and the message would’ve hopefully reached the ears of the SCAF.

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