Friday, August 19, 2011

Violence At the Libyan Embassy in Cairo

For the second time this week, Libyans and Egyptians descended upon the Libyan embassy in Cairo to hoist the free Libya flag. And for the second time this week, the Egyptian army and police responded with violence. The outcome yesterday was hardly a surprise. Rather, it was completely expected.

On Monday night, Libyans learned a lesson their Egyptian compatriots have known for a long time: the security forces in Egypt are willing to use force, even when no force is necessary. About fifty protesters gathered in front of the embassy, chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans and singing songs about Egyptian-Libyan unity. Without warning, the police and army fired into the air. The demonstrators ran from swinging truncheons and zapping tasers of the security forces, pouring into a busy thoroughfare of the normally peaceful neighborhood of Zamalek.

Protesters claimed security forces had fired live rounds into the air before I arrived.

Chaos ensued. Those who did not run fast enough were caught and dragged back towards the embassy, beaten, kicked, and punched as onlookers watched stunned and confused. One police officer ran down the central July 26th Street, shooting his pistol wildly in the air. Other security forces formed battle lines and charged with batons raised, barging through the traffic and outdoor cafes that line the street.

While not untouched by the revolution, the protected island of Zamalek emerged largely unscathed by the violence elsewhere in the city. On Monday night, that bubble of security burst as Egyptian security forces attacked Libyan demonstrators protesting for the very same demands as the Egyptian revolution. In the end, two Libyans and one Egyptian were arrested. A boy lay in the street injured, waiting for an ambulance to arrive over an hour later.

This boy was one of several protesters beaten by security forces.

Thus as protesters gathered once more on Thursday, they fully knew the risks involved. Most expected the same violent result but descended to the streets nonetheless. One protester told me, “Yes, we will be attacked. The Egyptian army is a big problem.” But they were willing to sacrifice nonetheless. Another protester calmly explained his nephew died in a firefight in Brega. When I offered my condolences, he said they were unnecessary: “Everyone here has lost someone fighting Gaddafi.” With their friends and family dodging bullets in Libya, dodging tasers and batons in Cairo seemed not only trivial, but a responsibility owed to their loved ones.

So they protested. For a while, their fears of a violent response by the Egyptian police and army seemed overblown. Men chanted “Egypt and Libya are one hand” right in the faces of the shielded riot police as women stood behind for safety chanting “Peaceful! Peaceful!” An army officer tried to address the crowd to urge them to go home, but his pleas were drowned out by chants calling for the fall of Gaddafi’s ambassador.

This officer failed to convince the crowd to leave.

As the afternoon call to prayer rang out, both the protesters and the security forces took a break. The police loosened the barricade around the embassy, as protesters milled both in front and behind the security lines. Demonstrators and security forces joked with each other and even posed for pictures together. But after the prayer ended, several hundred security reinforcements arrived, the security lines tightened, the chants began once more, and the tension rose.

Policemen take a break during the call to prayer

A protester takes a picture with police. The attack began shortly after.
Within thirty minutes, the attack began. Without warning, batons and truncheons began to swing wildly as protesters ran towards July 26th, just as they had done on Monday night. This time, however, their numbers were larger and they were not so easily moved. Women moved to the protection of the back as men surged forward. Some protest leaders tried to steel the nerves of their comrades (and likely themselves), urging everyone to stand strong. But step by step, the shields of the police inched forward. After several police surges and protester countersurges, the protester lines finally broke.

Chaos once again ensued. Hundreds of protesters and security forces once again poured into July 26th Street, this time in broad daylight. The thwacks of batons and zaps of tasers were unmistakable. Police screamed to intimidate and women just simply screamed. One Egyptian soldier swung violently at one protester, whose body crumpled to the ground. Some youth began to throw rocks and bottles at the security forces to the dismay of other protesters. A debate over whether to resist violence with violence was cut short as yet another line of police charged. Within an hour, the protesters had completely withdrawn and calm once again returned to the island of Zamalek.

Below is some of the footage I took of the protest before and during the clash.

The question remains why the Egyptian government would use force against a peaceful protest in the heart of Zamalek. Admittedly, Egypt must uphold the international legal obligation of protecting the Libyan embassy. However, when security forces attacked Monday night and Thursday afternoon, protesters posed no direct threat to the security of the embassy. In fact, they were forced to protest on the other side of the street. Nor were the attacks carried out in self-defense. While some protesters resisted violently, such acts were the exception and only occurred after the initial attack by the security forces.

Rather, the security forces attacked for four reasons. One, the protesters were mainly Libyans and not Egyptian citizens. If the police and army are willing to use force against their own citizens, there is no reason to think they would hesitate to do so against foreigners.

Two, even if Egyptians largely sympathize with protest movements elsewhere in the region, they also have become incredibly skeptical of protests within Egypt itself and tire of the general state of insecurity that has plagued Egypt since the revolution. It’s not clear how many Egyptians know about the Libya embassy protests or would respond with anything more than a sympathetic shrug. The security forces may therefore have felt they had a free hand to dispatch these protests, just as they did the Tahrir sit-in earlier this month.

Third, the military council ruling Egypt is likely concerned that any seemingly mundane protest could escalate into something far more threatening and disruptive. Better to disperse a crowd of 300 now than one of 3,000 later. All the military council wants to do is keep people off the streets for a few more months while they transition to a minimally acceptable civilian government so they can return to running their shadow economy. That is why they dispatched of the Tahrir sit-in and that is why they broke up the Libyan embassy protests.

Finally, they broke up the protests because they could. For decades, Egypt’s security forces have acted with absolute impunity. They have defended their corrupt interests vengefully and removed anyone who got in their way. The police state built by Mubarak and his predecessors persists, even if the leadership has changed. For the revolution to succeed, Egyptians must not only change their politics, but they must also overcome the culture of violent impunity that pervades the entire governmental bureaucracy. Until they do, security forces will not hesitate to beat, electrocute, and imprison any voice who dares cry freedom.

While the protesters were forced off the street this week, they may yet enjoy victory soon enough. With Gaddafi's military, economic, and political standing weakening by the day, the Egyptian government may yet decide that recognizing his government is no longer worth the hassle. Or events on the ground in Libya may simply outpace the protests here in Egypt, and Gaddafi's likely imminent fall will turn this week's protests into celebrations.


Elizabeth said...

Very interesting first-hand account. Well-written piece.

Jason Stern said...

Thanks Elizabeth! Very much appreciated.

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