Egypt’s Rodney King Moment

Will the army’s use of excessive force against protesters in Tahrir be the straw that broke the generals’ backs? Or are they making clear they’re not about to relinquish power?

The sheer amount of evidence is astonishing; the violence, shocking. There's the now globally iconic "blue bra girl," the poor young woman who was savagely beaten, stomped, and dragged down the pavement by multiple soldiers while her black abeya is pulled up over her head.

That video alone in most countries would prompt an independent fact-finding commission, mass firings, and a round of national soul-searching. But it's just Exhibit A in a long list of brutal acts committed by the Egyptian army in its increasingly bitter and personal struggle with the country's activist forces.

There's video footage of army soldiers -- despite repeated government denials that this ever happened -- firing handguns directly at unarmed protesters. There are multiple videos showing a wolfpack of baton-wielding soldiers beating down civilians who are either curled up in fetal position or have long since gone limp. There's footage of soldiers in uniform hurling rocks onto protesters from on top of the Parliament building.

It might even be unfair to compare the situation to the Rodney King beating -- which, after all, was merely one incident conducted by officers who didn't realize they were being taped. What happened this past Friday and Saturday was closer to the assault by the Chicago Police Department on anti-Vietnam War protesters during the 1968 Democratic Convention -- if only that attack had taken place during the age of Twitter and YouTube. The Chicago assault was later described by an independent committee as a "police riot"; the Egyptian military's actions last week may one day be remembered as an "army riot."

The fallout from the violence, which started Thursday night, has been dramatic. At least 13 protesters have died and hundreds have been injured. The Parliament building, despite protesters' best efforts, remains standing, but two nearby government buildings have been set ablaze -- including the Egyptian Scientific Institute, home to thousands of rare books and manuscripts.

The cause of this latest spasm of street anger remains a subject of speculation and varies depending on whom you ask. Military officials claim one of the protesters, who had been camping for more than a week outside the Parliament building on the outskirts of Tahrir Square, attacked an officer. Protesters claim one of their number was savagely beaten by soldiers on the Parliament grounds. Whatever the spark, the long-standing bad blood ensured an instant escalation. By Friday, enraged protesters were attacking any government building in sight, while a group of plainclothes and uniformed men were hurling rocks, bottles, and allegedly kitchenware and office furniture from a fifth-floor roof onto the crowds below.

Among the activist forces, there has been a hardening of wills, a belief that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) must be dealt with exactly as Hosni Mubarak was -- forced immediately from power with no exceptions and no grace period. Egyptian novelist and activist Ahdaf Soueif captured this sentiment best in a column in the Guardian newspaper, describing the current fight as a final showdown with the unreformed heart of the Mubarak regime. "Now our revolution is in an endgame struggle with the old regime and the military," Soueif wrote. "The message is: Everything you rose up against is here, is worse. Don't put your hopes in the revolution or Parliament. We are the regime, and we're back."

Judging from the attitude of the military, it seems like the SCAF is equally fed up. This was not a dispassionate or professional security operation; there was genuine malice and animosity in the soldiers' behavior. The two sides in this conflict seem to hate each other, and it's hard to envision either side backing down at this point.  

Amazingly, all of this is happening in the middle of an ongoing extended parliamentary election that actually seems to be progressing on schedule and with a minimum of serious violations. Run-offs for the second round of regional voting begin on Wednesday, and voter turnout remains high. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party still holds a commanding lead with about 40 percent of the vote, followed by an ultra-conservative Salafist Muslim Nour Party -- the real surprise performer so far. The strongest liberal/secular coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, trails in third.

The disconnect between what can fairly be called Egypt's best elections in generations and the savage violence engulfing the city center is genuinely surreal. Inside Tahrir, it's hard to believe that elections can result in real change to Egypt's ruling order, so long as the SCAF remains in power. Outside, it's hard to believe that further street confrontations can produce anything positive. As if to add physical form to this psychological separation, army troops have begun walling off Tahrir from the rest of Cairo, erecting makeshift concrete barriers on multiple streets and playing havoc with Cairo's already terrible traffic congestion.

On Monday, SCAF member Gen. Adel Emara held a nationally televised press conference to address the accusations of military misconduct. His performance, and that of his carefully selected audience, is worthy of extended study. Foreign correspondents were told the conference was for local media only. One journalist who was in attendance told me the room was partially stocked with employees of the State Information Service.

Emara repeatedly blamed the protesters for inciting the violence by attacking soldiers and threatening to destroy the Parliament building. He praised the "self-restraint" shown by Egyptian soldiers in the course of their duties. He also acknowledged the aforementioned attack on the partially disrobed young woman, but said that observers "don't know the full circumstances." It was left unclear just what circumstances justify a grown man stomping hard on the chest of a helpless and half-naked woman.

When a matronly female journalist in a blue hijab scarf demanded that the Army apologize to all Egyptian women for the multiple attacks on female protesters, Emara merely said the incidents were under investigation. Then he dropped a bombshell, announcing that he had just received intelligence of an imminent plot to burn down Parliament. It felt like a stunt diversion, as the area around Parliament was relatively peaceful at the time. In the end, Emara called for sympathy and support for the beleaguered Egyptian soldiers.

"These heroes from the Army have our appreciation for what they are doing for the sake of the nation. They will be remembered by history," he said. "They are the pride of this nation, the best soldiers on earth. May God protect Egypt and its people from strife and keep Egypt's flag flying high."

Incredibly, half the room erupted in applause at Emara's closing statement, while the journalists in the front row visibly swiveled in their seats to see who was clapping.  

So what happens now? Most likely more of the same -- more elections and more concurrent violence. The end result will be a deepening of the psychological wedge that has come to define post-revolutionary Egypt. The Tahrir protesters seem completely comfortable with the possibility that they're out of step with the national mood. A coalition of activist groups has called for a massive Tahrir protest on Friday to demand the SCAF's immediate departure. The turnout should prove a litmus test for the activists' true popularity and the level of backlash and public disgust against the army's tactics. One potential early indicator: Thousands of mostly female demonstrators turned out on Tuesday evening in Cairo in a march protesting the seemingly systematic use of violence against women.

The damning footage has already cost the generals international credibility. The United Nations Human Rights chief, Navi Pillay, called the images coming out of Cairo "utterly shocking." U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the military's behavior "dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people." Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley was even more blunt, sending out a Twitter message on Tuesday afternoon that read: "The Egyptian military's pursuit of its own political self-interest comes at the expense of its relationship with the Egyptian people."

Disturbingly, the military might not be the only ones losing control of themselves. There's a dangerously nihilistic edge that has steadily crept into the ranks of the protesters and is currently in full flower. On Friday night, I watched uneasily as young protesters cheered while the flames started to spread inside the building housing the General Authority for Roads and Bridges -- not the Interior Ministry or the National Democratic Party Headquarters, just some innocuous building whose only crime was that it represented the government.  

Perhaps the surest way for the SCAF to mollify the anger of the Cairo streets is by accelerating their departure from power and handover to civilian leadership -- currently slated for June 2012. It's an option that has already been endorsed by former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, among others. But judging from the genuinely hateful behavior of the army troops last week and Gen. Emara's defiant stonewalling, Egypt's military has been pushed as far as it's willing to go and is more likely to continue lashing out than offer concessions.




Is the Arab Spring Bad for Women?

Overthrowing male dominance could be harder than overthrowing a dictator.

In many ways, 2011 has been the Year of the Arab Woman. From the earliest days of upheaval that started in Tunisia last December, women have been on the front lines of protest, leading public demonstrations, blogging passionately, covering the unrest as journalists, launching social media campaigns, smuggling munitions, and caring for the wounded. This month, when Tawakkol Karman became the first Arab woman to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, she gave an enthusiastic shout-out to her many Arab sisters who have struggled "to win their rights in a society dominated by the supremacy of men."

Across the region, though, Arab women are grumbling that overthrowing dictators is proving easier than overturning the pervasive supremacy of men. Gamila Ismail, a prominent Egyptian activist and politician, summed it up when she quit Egypt's parliamentary race in disgust after learning that she would be put third on the list in her district -- not a winning position. "We women had a very important role before, during, and after the revolution, and it does not work for us today, to accept this," she complained in a television interview. (She ran and narrowly lost as an independent candidate.) In Tunisia, disgruntled women activists have formed the October 24 Front to defend women's rights in the aftermath of the Islamists' electoral victory there. "We want a constitution that respects women's rights and doesn't roll back the advances we've made," said one Tunisian protester.

Arab women are embattled on multiple fronts. First and foremost are the deep-seated patriarchal customs that constrain women. Patriarchy is certainly not unique to Arab lands, but it runs deep. It doesn't help that for decades, the women's rights agenda was closely associated with the now-discredited authoritarian regimes: Egypt's Suzanne Mubarak ran a state-affiliated women's NGO; Leila Ben Ali, Tunisia's much-hated hairdresser-cum-first lady, was president of the Arab Women Organization, an intergovernmental body sponsored by the Arab League; and both Syria's Asma al-Assad and Jordan's Queen Rania have been active on women's issues. The rise of politically empowered Islamist parties that contest existing laws for women on religious grounds also pose serious complications for women. Although women's activism has clearly been important to the Arab revolts, there is no guarantee that women's rights activists will be able to turn their engagement into longer-term economic, social, and political gains. In fact, in some countries, there is reason for concern that women will see their rights erode.

Libya is a case in point. At the ceremony marking Libya's official liberation in October, one of the first announcements from Mustafa Abdel Jalil, leader of Libya's National Transitional Council, was that any laws that contradicted sharia would be annulled. He specifically mentioned that, going forward, polygamy would be legal, drawing cheers and celebratory gunfire from the mostly male crowd. Libyan women expressed surprise and disappointment and wondered why, with all of Libya's pressing issues, reinstating polygamy should be on the front burner. (NATO leaders wondered the same.) Although polygamy was technically legal under Qaddafi, it was discouraged and today is not practiced widely in Libya, but that could change. Female university students, who largely describe themselves as pious, vow to fight this regression.

In Egypt, a number of developments over the past year underscore women's rights as a flashpoint in society. The inspirational images of gender solidarity in Tahrir Square in the early days of the revolution quickly gave way to ugly episodes of targeted harassment. A hastily planned demonstration on March 8, International Women's Day, attracted a few hundred women but was marred by angry men shoving the protesters and yelling at them to go home, saying their demands for rights are against Islam. Around the same time, the Egyptian military rounded up scores of women demonstrators and, in a show of raw intimidation, subjected many of them to "virginity tests." On the political level, women have been excluded from major decision-making bodies since the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime, and it appears that few, if any, will win seats in the ongoing parliamentary elections. Their low success rate was not helped by the military's decision to eliminate a Mubarak-era quota ensuring women 64 seats. This was a setback for women's political participation, even though the quota enjoyed little credibility because it had been used to reward Mubarak loyalists.

The strong showing of Islamists parties in the first round of Egypt's parliamentary elections has women's groups worried. The ultraconservative Salafi groups, which took a surprising 20 percent of the vote, openly question a modern role for women in society. One Salafi leader refused to appear on a political talk show on television until the female host put on a headscarf. Another denounced the military government's requirement to include women on electoral lists as "evil," though Emad Abdel-Ghafour, head of al-Nour, the leading Salafi party, stated that the party does accept women candidates. Yet the Salafi women who did run demurred from showing their pictures on campaign materials, instead replacing their faces with pictures of flowers; moreover, the party deliberately clustered them at the bottom of its lists, making them unlikely to win seats. One Salafi sheikh recently issued an opinion that women should not wear high-heeled shoes in public. Along with Salafi statements of intent to ban alcohol and limit beach tourism, these swipes at women unnerve liberals.

Yet liberals have not been stalwarts of women's rights in Egypt either. The 2000 decision to grant women the right to no-fault divorce (prior to this, they had to jump over the onerous legal hurdle of proving abuse or abandonment) was denounced not only by Islamist groups but by secular ones too -- for undermining the family. Other changes to the personal-status laws in the past decade that have benefited women, particularly an expansion of custody rights, are coming under increasing attack. Critics discredit the reforms by derisively calling them "Suzanne's Laws," after Suzanne Mubarak. They claim the laws were intended to accommodate the wealthy friends of the former first lady, and they blame those statutes for a rise in the country's divorce rate. Given the criticism of these laws from all sides of the political spectrum, it is likely that they will be amended by the new parliament, and not to women's benefit.

Women seem to be faring better in Tunisia. Liberals and secularists have been deeply wary of the rise of al-Nahda, the country's leading Islamist party, warning that it could mean a reversal of women's rights. Since the 1950s, Tunisian women have enjoyed the most expansive legal rights in the region, including relatively progressive marriage and divorce laws and access to birth control and abortion. Since returning to Tunisia in the beginning of this year, Rached Ghannouchi, al-Nahda's leader, has strived to convince Tunisians that his party will not seek to change the country's personal-status laws. Some, however, have accused al-Nahda of obfuscating its real intentions behind moderate rhetoric -- a charge that did not prevent the party from surging to victory with 41 percent of the vote in October's election. Thanks to electoral rules requiring favorable placement of women on party lists, women gained 23 percent of the seats in parliament, a higher share than in the U.S. Congress. Most of the women are from al-Nahda and will likely reflect their party's traditional views on women, but their participation in such large numbers at least normalizes an active political role for women. Moreover, Ghannouchi and other al-Nahda leaders so far have been purposefully focused on efforts to jump-start the economy, produce jobs, and reassure foreign investors. Al-Nahda has forged a coalition with liberal parties, and to maintain that coalition, it will have to continue to focus on the economy and human rights rather than getting bogged down in divisive culture wars.

Ghannouchi seems to understand that while rolling back gains for women can score points among Islamic conservatives, ultimately al-Nahda will win or lose on economic grounds, and women are important economic actors. With high rates of literacy and relatively low fertility, women constitute nearly a third of Tunisia's workforce. Economic reality simply demands a pragmatic approach toward women. Let's hope that Ghannouchi can get that message through to his Islamist brothers across the region. Otherwise, Arab women might soon be channeling their Iranian sisters, who have complained that Iran's Islamic Revolution has brought them little but poverty and polygamy.