Two steps forward in Egypt

March 9, 2011

Mostafa Ali reports from Egypt on two events that have sent shock waves across the country--and given new confidence to the revolutionary movement.

LESS THAN a month since the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak and against the background of a relentless government campaign against demonstrations and strikes, the revolutionary movement in Egypt has scored two major victories.

First, under the pressure of both continued occupation of the center of Tahrir Square by protesters as well as the spread of strikes across the country, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces dismissed the cabinet of former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, which was appointed by Mubarak in his last days in power.

On March 3, the Council appointed Essam Sharaf--a former Transportation Minister who resigned in 2005 from a previous Mubarak cabinet to protest corruption, and who also took part in Tahrir demonstrations--as the new prime minister.

The following day, Friday, March 4, 1 million people poured into Tahrir Square to celebrate the fall of the old cabinet. The new prime minister gave his acceptance speech in Tahrir Square. He promised the massive crowd that he would fulfill the demands of the revolution and declared he would return to protest in Tahrir with them if the government failed to do this.

Protesters breaking into the Egyptian State Security building
Protesters breaking into the Egyptian State Security building

As a further show of yielding to protesters, the new prime minister immediately replaced the most unpopular ministers in the old cabinet--and at the top of the list were ministers of Justice, Interior and Foreign Affairs.

The ousting of the old cabinet immediately translated into a resurgence of confidence of the millions of Egyptians who made the revolution in their ability to win their demands in the face of an intransigent ruling class.

Meanwhile, that Friday night, as people were still celebrating in Tahrir, hundreds of revolutionaries in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, surrounded the headquarters of the State Security Apparatus (SSA)--the notorious secret police.

The protesters mobilized after rumors spread that officers were shredding and burning documents that would implicate them in acts of torture and illegal arrests and the detention of thousands of political and non-political prisoners.

When officers opened fire from the building's balconies and lobbed Molotov cocktail bombs at protesters, hundreds rushed the building. Army units immediately intervened and detained SSA officers, escorting them out of the building and thus saving their lives.

Inside the building, protesters found evidence that the officers had shredded and burned mountains of documents. However, the demonstrators were still able to save a lot of the material.

The protesters handed most of the saved documents to the army, but only after they photocopied, so it could be shared with the public. The protesters were also able to find some political prisoners who were being tortured in secret cells and freed them.

THE COUNTRY was electrified by the storming of the headquarters of the secret police in Alexandria by revolutionaries and the immediate appearance on YouTube and the media of recovered secret documents that tell stories of corruption and torture of an unimaginable magnitude.

By mid-afternoon the following day, thousands of protesters were mobilizing to take control of SSA headquarters in city after city--Cairo, Giza, Shubra, Zakazeek, Sohag, Aswan, Domyat, Matrouh.

In some cases, the protesters took direct control of SSA buildings and replicated what the Alexandrians did. In other cases, army units beat protesters to the SSA headquarters, detained SSA officers and seized documents that had not been burned. At the Lazoghli Building, headquarters of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo, the army clashed with protesters who attempted to storm the building and arrested some.

The Supreme Council immediately urged all protesters who confiscated SSA secret documents not to publish them in the name of national security. President Barack Obama sent a Pentagon official to Cairo to discuss with the Supreme Council how to deal with possible fallout from publishing documents that could highlight the cooperation between the U.S. and the Egyptian SSA in torturing suspects in the U.S. government's so-called "war on terror."

Unfortunately for the Council, Egyptians didn't listen to its pleas. Within 24 hours of the storming of SSA buildings, people had posted on the Internet hundreds of documents, plus videos taken inside the headquarters. The protesters took parts of the machines used to torture people with electric shocks and showed them to the world.

The SSA was the chief tool of repression under the Mubarak regime, impacting the lives of all Egyptian workers, students and peasants. The SSA effectively controlled all aspects of life in every company, factory, university and neighborhood. It tracked down, imprisoned and tortured political activists, from Islamists to socialists and trade unionists, and on and on.

Through the leaked documents, the public has finally gotten a chance to see for itself what it already knew from personal experience or from stories told by tens of thousands of ordinary people and activists who were tortured by the SSA and were lucky to make it out of its gulags alive.

Moreover, many documents proved that the SSA was actively cultivating hatred between Muslims and Christians as a divide-and-conquer tactic. A former Interior Minister is now known to have personally orchestrated the heinous bomb attack on Elkedeseen Church in Alexandria on New Year's Eve that killed and injured dozens--the aim was to ignite a civil war between Muslims and Christians to avert a bigger social upheaval.

For weeks now, democracy demonstrators have called on the government to dismantle the SSA. And for weeks, the government stalled and refused to promise anything but reform of the secret police.

It turns out that the government was even lying about "reform." A secret document confiscated from SSA buildings and posted on the Internet showed that the government was discussing simply changing the name of the SSA to create the illusion among the public that it had been transformed.

But, today more than ever, millions of people support the dismantling of the SSA. And with Tunisia's new cabinet, also facing protests, has just announced that it will disband the country's secret police, the new Egyptian cabinet will also be under tremendous pressure to do the same.

On March 7, the attorney general's office charged 47 officers with burning documents and tampering with evidence. Meanwhile, the government removed all police and SSA officers from university campuses--where they repressed political and academic freedoms for decades--thus finally honoring a 2010 court order to this effect.

THE FALL of the Mubarak-appointed cabinet and the storming of SSA headquarters have sent shock waves across Egypt.

On the one hand, these two events have emboldened supporters of the revolution to take more militant steps to achieve their goals. On the other, they have dealt a blow to those parts of the Mubarak regime that are still organizing to limit and defeat the revolutionary surge.

These two victories can create a breathing space for revolutionaries to strengthen their forces. For one, militant workers who were continually targeted by the SSA may have one less sword directed at their throats. Students on campuses will have more freedom to organize a stronger front of struggle.

However, these setbacks for the ruling class mean it will be sharper and more vicious in its campaign to bring back "law and order." While the SSA is under siege and maybe on its way out, the guardians of the old order, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, will attempt to recreate the mechanisms of repression that they believe are needed to deal with workers and revolutionaries.

Since the army is, for the moment, ruling out use of the "force" option to stem the tide of revolution, the government media and even liberal media, as well as moderate parties and formations, will take the lead in supporting the Supreme Council's schemes.

Unfortunately, the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution Youth, which was formed by liberals and members of the Muslim Brotherhood out of the Tahrir revolt, has already called off the weekly protest on Friday, March 11, to give the new prime minister a chance.

But for now, momentum has shifted back to the side of the revolutionaries, and they have the wind at their backs.

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