Egypt: the army and the people were never “one hand”

IssueMay 2011
Feature by Maikel Nabil Sanad

On 11 February, after president Hosni Mubarak’s stepping-down speech, many Egyptians rushed to declaring victory and the completion of the revolution. I regret having to say the following, mostly because many of those who spoke out are my friends, but people have the right to know the truth. In fact, the revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not of the dictatorship.

As I participated in the revolution since day one, I’ve witnessed the majority of the events. I will present the evidence and documents which show that the army did not stand alongside the people, not even once during this revolution, and that the army’s conduct was deceptive all the time and that it was protecting its own interests.

In order to simplify this study, I’ve divided the Egyptian revolution into three stages:

Stage 1: Before 29 January 2011 (before the army took over the streets)
Stage 2: From 29 January until the stepping-down speech on 11 February 2011 (14 days)
Stage 3: After the stepping-down speech (from 12 February until now).

Stage 1

The Egyptian revolution started on 25 January, and hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets during the first four days of the revolution; the police forces opposed them with brutality, and killed more than 500 protesters and injured more than 6000. In addition there were 1,000 missing, who turned out later to be behind bars in the ministry of the interior. So what was the reaction of the army?

The army provided the police with live bullets to kill the demonstrators in Tahrir Square on 28 January after Friday prayers.

The battle between demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the police lasted around 10 hours (from 2pm until about midnight). After 6pm, the police stationed next to the parliament stopped shooting because they ran out of ammunition.

After a few minutes, the protesters saw military police jeeps passing through them and heading towards the besieged police forces and then returning again.

After the departure of the military police jeeps, the police forces started firing live bullets at the demonstrators until they ran out of ammunition again.

The same scene was repeated. At that point, demonstrators realised that the army was not on their side, so they set fire to two jeeps belonging to the military police and an armoured vehicle belonging to the armoured corps of the military, and captured four tanks.

Stage 2

After 29 January, army officers started speaking to the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, calming them, pacifying them. Hence, a new phase of the relationship between the revolutionaries and the army started – not based on direct clashes, but based on managing the conflict through indirect mechanisms. A blockade of the revolutionaries in the first few days prevented the demonstrators from leaving Tahrir Square, especially in the direction of the ministry of the interior and the parliament buildings.

After the second speech of Mubarak on the night of 1 February, huge groups of thugs flooded the streets chanting for Mubarak to stay. During the following two days, the thugs attacked the demonstrators with camels and horses, resulting in the death of 10 martyrs and the injury of over 1,500.

The army stood passively neutral and let the thugs and the snipers attack the revolutionaries. The thugs were also allowed to climb the buildings overlooking Tahrir Square to throw Molotov cocktails at the demonstrators.

One of the documents that was leaked from the state security headquarters in Nasr City, after it was broken into on 5 March, reveals that a major in the armed forces named Khalid Mohamed Mohsen Sharkawy visited the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Mousa, asking him to speak to the demonstrators to encourage them to leave Tahrir Square.

This is what actually happened; Amr Mousa went to the square and asked the demonstrators to accept what Mubarak offered in his second speech.

On 3 February, the military police broke into the offices of Amnesty International and the Hesham Mubarak Centre for Human Rights, and other international human rights centres, confiscating their files, arresting their leaders, and delivering the ones who happened to be there to the thugs to be beaten up!

The military police arrested very many activists, collaborating with the state security and thugs. On 30 January, Malek Adly was arrested. On 3 February, the blogger “Sand Monkey” was arrested on his way – with medical equipment – to Tahrir Square; a few hours later his blog was blocked.

On 4 February, Wael Abbas, a blogger, and I were arrested, and on 6 February the blogger Kareem Amer was arrested. Some estimated that the number of demonstrators who got arrested during those two weeks was over 10,000, detained in tens of military detention centres in Cairo and other areas of Egypt.

The most important of those detention centres were the military prison in the Hike-step area and the military intelligence centre in Nasr City in front of Tiba Mall. Those demonstrators told stories after they were released about the torture and killing of many other demonstrators by the officers of the army and the intelligence. [Maikel’s full report contains several personal accounts of detention and mistreatment, including his own.] The army tried to invade Tahrir Square more than once during the period from 4 to 10 February in order to kick the protesters out. This resulted in many clashes.

Stage 3

After Mubarak’s stepping-down speech on 11 February, the army adopted a media style which conveyed the message that they had joined the revolution – but at the same time they did everything to ensure suppression of the revolution or to at least guarantee that it wouldn’t lead to any extra rights. The Incorporeal Affairs Department [sic] of the Egyptian army took over the media, banning photography in Tahrir Square.

The military also dispersed the demonstrations in Tahrir Square by force. For example, on 13 February, the military police battered some people who were protesting in Tahrir Square. Al-Jazeera channel broadcast a live video of the military police using thick sticks in an attempt to disperse the protesters who were sitting-in.

On 14 February, the violence committed by the army in the square reached a peak.

The army repeated its violence on 25 February, as the army leaders in Tahrir Square refused to allow the establishment of any tents or stages – one of them even threatened to kill the demonstrators.

After 7pm, the army cut the electric supply to the square in preparation for what was planned to happen at midnight. After midnight, military police forces aided by Sa’iqa [commandos] and private forces attacked the demonstrators violently. They battered them with thick iron, wooden sticks, and electrified whips. The demonstrators were forcibly dispersed and many of them were arrested. In a report published by the Al Badeel website on 23 February, the Al Nadim Centre uncovered the detention of around 1,000 protesters arrested by the police during the first days of the revolution and who were still detained in Al Wadi Al Gadeed prison (without any legal procedures).

On 13 February, the armed forces sent a group of officers to Tahrir Square to persuade the protesters to evacuate the square. I told one of the officers that we wanted the release of all detainees; he then told me that the detainees will not be released until we evacuated the square. (This means that the detainees were kept as hostages to get us to evacuate the square.) In fact, the square was evacuated a few days after that, yet the detainees have not been released to this day.

Why no shooting?

The most important question: Why didn’t the army shoot the demonstrators? What happened with the army on the night of 28 January 2011, when the army supplied the police with live ammunition, was that the protesters burned an armoured vehicle and two army Jeeps, as well as capturing four tanks, so the army realised clearly that using its weapons against the protesters could lead to the loss of equipment, which would fall into the hands of revolutionaries, and would lead to the members of the army siding with the citizens and disobeying orders.

Anyone who followed what happened in Libya would notice that this was exactly what happened as a result of using army weapons against citizens.

The army’s use of weapons against demonstrators wasn’t an option. It was not that they were restrained because they were in favour of the revolution.