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Cairo -- Electoral systems are slippery things.  Political players often try to grab hold and point them in one direction or another to obtain an electoral advantage, and sometimes regret their decisions later—witness the famous 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, in which Fatah shaped a system to its liking only to find out it played to the strengths of Hamas.  A day of meetings to discuss the system that Egypt will use for its first post-revolutionary elections left me with a number of questions about technical points that might prove important:

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Mohamed ElBaradei in Tahrir Square

Clashes broke out again after Central Security Forces attacked thousands of protesters staging a sit-in outside of the Cabinet building to condemn the appointment of Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri. The SCAF announced on November 25 that each stage of the parliamentary elections will be held over two days instead of one to avoid "overcrowding and security issues." Meanwhile, the head of the High Electoral Commission revealed that the SCAF is considering postponing the first round of voting in Cairo and Alexandria, and ten of the judges commissioned to supervise the elections have decided to back out of their commitment, saying that elections should be delayed in light of the current unrest. 

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As a Cairene surrounded by the intensity and dynamism of the second wave of mass Tahrir protests, one tends to forget that other parts of the country are fighting their own battles that, although, smaller in scale, are just as intense and significant to those residents fighting for their rights. After only three days in Alexandria, I could not help but feel that the people were fighting a more difficult battle in the war that is Egypt's revolution against the old regime. The uphill struggle facing revolutionaries here involves the media and local politics.

While news agencies - both national and international - focus on the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces' (SCAF) dealings with the protesters and political factions in Tahrir, only a few heads turn to Victor Emanuel Square at the end of Smouha street outside the office of the Central Security Forces' (CSF) office. The hundreds of protesters pale in comparison to the thousands present in Tahrir. The fewer CSF officers available to deal with the demonstrations, however, results in a heightened sense of fear as they respond with arguably more ferocity. With hardly any consistent reporting and a systematic effort to break mobile phones and confiscate recording devices, protesters face an authority trying to maintain their level of impunity. Despite only three confirmed deaths, the intensity of the injuries witnessed rivals those seen in Tahrir, including broken arms, internal bleeding, concussions, lacerations, and of course gas inhalation.

The other factor at play involves the leanings of a substantial portion of the population towards the Islamist parties. Many in Alexandria do not entirely trust the Muslim Brotherhood to represent their interests, but few can argue the fact that its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) remains one of the most organized political groups with one of the strongest campaigns. Those who would not choose FJP candidates tend to lean towards the Salafis and their Nour Party. With expectations that Islamist parties will win a large portion of parliamentary seats, many of their supporters in Egypt's second largest city resent the protesters and argue that they have intentionally engineered the demonstrations to interfere with the elections timetable. 

Sadly, the resulting dynamic leaves Alexandria's revolutionary youth vulnerable to brutal authoritarian tactics by security forces with little support from their local neighborhoods. Nonetheless, approximately three thousand demonstrators gathered in front of al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque to attend the "Million Man March" that took place this Friday, marching to the military headquarters in the north of the city, spending hours calling for freedom from oppression. Despite a lack of organization and internal support, those in Tahrir would no doubt admire their tenacity and national pride ... if only someone could see them!

Tarek Radwan is an Egyptian human rights activist specializing in international law and conflict resolution. He has worked for Human Rights Watch's MENA division and the United Nations mission (UNAMID) in Darfur as a Human Rights Officer. He currently provides consulting services on civilian protection and Middle East issues.

Photo Credit: LA Times

Field Marshal Tantawi with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

The Egyptian street has erupted once again.  As before, people around the world are riveted by the surge of protests rocking Cairo, Alexandria, Assiut, Ismailia, Mahalla, Mansoura, Suez, and elsewhere. What is particularly breathtaking about the recent events is not only the rapid spread of the uprising, but the (previously unthinkable) demand to end 60 years of military rule in Egypt.  This makes the ouster of Mubarak look like child’s play in comparison. It also places US officials in an even bigger dilemma than before. After all, a single dictator is replaceable. But the institutionalized power of the Egyptian military may be less easy to bend.

Back in February, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen praised the professionalism of the Egyptian army in their handling of the mass uprising, as they largely respected the right of the people to protest. American officials like to take at least partial credit for the restraint exercised by the Egyptian army. They believe that US military aid to Egypt buys the US influence, just as they believe that training Egyptian officers in American military academies instills them with democratic values.  This narrative is comforting, not to mention self-congratulatory. Perhaps this is why few seem interested in subjecting it to empirical scrutiny.

I consider myself very fortunate to have lived in Egypt for several years and to have been in Cairo throughout the entire period of what has become known as the “Egyptian Revolution.” I saw with my own eyes how, when army tanks rolled into Tahrir on January 28, Egyptians celebrated the soldiers as liberators. But things have changed. One week into Egypt’s “Second Revolution”, more than forty people have been killed and thousands have been injured. Many more languish in prison, and over 12,000 civilians are being tried in military tribunals. The recent violence is but the culmination of months of human rights abuses that have become increasingly macabre. In March, women who dared to stage a demonstration on International Women’s Day were subjected to forced “virginity tests.” In April, junior officers who openly protested against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) were shot on Tahrir. In October, Coptic Christians who were demanding that their churches be protected, were run over and dismembered by armored personnel carriers. One may well ask what has become of the ‘professionalism’ of the US-trained Egyptian army?

In response to the most sustained violence since February, White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Tuesday: “We call on all sides to exercise restraint.” The only problem is, one side uses tanks, rubber bullets, and live ammunition, while the other side jerry-rigs cooking pots into makeshift helmets. Should the protesters abstain from their home-made self-protection devices? Or shout their demands for freedom and civilian rule a little less loudly?

If the Obama administration was truly interested in “restraint” being exercised, it could in fact do more than issue inane statements.

From 1948-2011, Egypt has received $71.6 billion in foreign aid from the United States, including $1.3 billion annually in military aid from 1987 until now. Despite all the uncertainties of the so-called “transitional phase,” the Obama Administration has already requested $1.3 billion for the next fiscal year.

While the SCAF gladly pockets this American money, it regards any American (or other outside) support for civil society as “foreign interference.” Foreigners are only allowed to support the Egyptian military, not Egyptian civilians.

The SCAF along with several cabinet ministers began a veritable witch hunt this past summer against youth activists, in particular the April 6 movement, accusing them of receiving foreign funding. Apparently the Egyptian military, which likely receives more external funding than any other institution in the country, saw no irony in their attempting to delegitimize their youthful critics by accusing them of receiving support from foreign donors. The Ministry of Justice was instructed to conduct an investigation into the matter. In their recent report, which did not receive much attention due to the ongoing events, they found that the April 6 movement has not received any foreign funding. Leaders of the April 6 movement are now demanding that the SCAF publicly apologize.  But the Supreme Council is far from acknowledging any wrongdoing about anything.

On the contrary, the generals continue undeterred in propagating the outlandish lie that “foreign forces” are behind the uprising, peddling the exact same line as Mubarak, and shamelessly attempting to incite xenophobia.

Although some members of Congress have supported placing conditions on US aid to Egypt, the Administration has consistently blocked this, fearing it will alienate the SCAF. In a press conference in Cairo on September 28, Secretary of State Clinton praised the military, saying “We also believe that the army has played a very stabilizing, important role during this period…” She then went on to say: “I want Egyptians to know that the Obama Administration opposes conditionality and do not believe that’s in the best interest of our relationship.”

During the “first revolution”, I took hundreds of pictures on Tahrir, many of which contained messages directed to the United States. One of them read, “US aid killed our people.” Another read: “USA: support the people, not the tyrant.” One of the most blunt was a sign stating simply: “America: F**k your aid.” Egyptians were angry back then, but now they’re outraged. If the United States continues to unconditionally support the military junta, it will lose the Egyptian people.

Amy Austin-Holmes has been an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo since 2008, where she teaches classes on social movements, revolutions, and US foreign policy. She has a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and an MA from the Freie Universität Berlin. Her book manuscript Contentious Allies: Social Unrest and the American Military Presence in Turkey and Germany 1945-2005 is under contract with Cambridge University Press. 

Photo Credit: Associated Press


The SCAF continues to insist that parliamentary elections will begin on time November 28.  Whether that actually happens or not might be determined by the size and character of the protest that is now beginning in Tahrir.  Revolutionary groups have promised a “millioniya” (million man march); that is hard, but not impossible, to carry off when the Muslim Brotherhood is not participating.  But even if the demonstration is short of a million, if there are tens of thousands in Cairo and also in other cities demanding a new political timetable, it is hard to see how polls can be held on Monday.

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Kamal Ganzouri with Hosni Mubarak in 1997.

The SCAF has appointed 78-year-old Kamal Ganzouri as Egypt’s new prime minister. Ganzouri previously served as Mubarak’s prime minister from 1996-1999. A military source said that Ganzouri will be tasked with forming a salvation government to replace Sharaf’s cabinet, which collectively resigned last week. Protesters have overwhelmingly rejected news of the appointment, with thousands rallying outside the cabinet building chanting anti-Ganzouri slogans.

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Kamal Ganzouri

The reported SCAF appointment of Kamal Ganzouri to head a new cabinet, replacing Essam Sharaf, is one of several steps the military leadership is taking to try to quell demonstrators’ anger without meeting their main demand:  that the SCAF relinquish power now.

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Tear gas canisters

Members of the SCAF and High Electoral Commission announced at a press conference that parliamentary elections will be held on schedule next week, despite escalating violence. The SCAF offered "regrets and deep apologies" for the deaths of protesters but is continuing to refuse calls for an immediate end to military rule. Meanwhile, fourteen political movements are calling for an escalation of nationwide protests with a “Friday of justice for martyrs” on November 25. 


1) Members of the SCAF and High Electoral Commission announced at a press conference that parliamentary elections will be held on schedule next week. Voting for Egyptian expatriates is already underway. Maj. Generals Mokhtar al-Mula and Mamdouh Shahin insisted that the SCAF is not seeking power and claimed that police officers involved in the clashes are only defending themselves against protesters. [Al-Ahram, English, 11/24/2011]


2) Fourteen youth and revolutionary groups are calling for a “Friday of justice for martyrs” on November 25, with mass marches in Cairo and other cities. The Revolutionary Youth Coalition announced a set of three demands for the planned demonstration: 1) prosecution of officers complicit in violence against protesters; 2) appointment of a national salvation government; and 3) dismantling the Central Security Forces. [Al-Ahram, English, 11/24/2011] [Al-Ahram, English, 11/24/2011]

3) Fifty detained protesters were released on November 24 as part of a truce between security forces and demonstrators brokered in Mohamed Mahmoud Street (the site of some of the most violent clashes in recent days). The released detainees immediately rejoined protesters in Tahrir Square. [Al-Shorouk, Arabic, 11/24/2011]


4) In a statement (Communique No. 85) published to its official Facebook page, the SCAF urged Egyptians to show unity and vigilance to prevent Egypt from falling into chaos and instability. The SCAF also warned of “infiltrators” among the protesters. [Al-Youm al-Saba’a, Arabic, 11/25/2011]

5) The Interior Ministry is refusing to take responsibility for the deaths of protesters. Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy admitted on state television that police had used gas to disperse protesters, but denied that officers shot at protesters with either rubber bullets or live rounds. He blamed reports of rooftop snipers on a third party, claiming that “unknown individuals” had been firing on protesters from the rooftops of surrounding buildings.[Al-Ahram, English, 11/24/2011]

6) The SCAF offered “regrets and deep apologies for the deaths of martyrs from among Egypt’s loyal sons during the recent events in Tahrir Square” in a message posted to the council’s official Facebook page on November 24 and attributed to Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Assar and Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Hijazi. [New York Times, English, 11/24/2011]

7) Maj. General Mamdouh Shahin stated in a news conference on November 24 that election plans would continue on schedule and vowed that those responsible for killing or injuring protesters would be held accountable. He also offered assurances that many detainees would be released as early as November 26. [Al Jazeera, English, 11/24/2011]


8) The Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party are still maintaining their official stance against participation in the ongoing sit-in in Tahrir Square, although a number of Brotherhood youth have joined the demonstration. A leading figure in the FJP, Mohamed El-Beltagi, was ejected from Tahrir Square earlier this week when he went to express support for the protesters, who accused him of exploiting the demonstration to promote his own party and political agenda ahead of parliamentary elections. [Al-Ahram, English, 11/24/2011]

9) A spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood’s guidance bureau, Mohamed Ghazlan, warned that the removal of the SCAF from power before elections could lead to chaos, while at the same time holding the military accountable for “every drop of blood spilled.” Ghazlan also accused the military of trying to drag the Brotherhood into the clashes in Tahrir Square. [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/24/2011]

10) Amr Moussa is reportedly among the top candidates being considered by the SCAF to lead the proposed national salvation government. According to an anonymous source close to the discussions, Moussa is demanding “broad powers” as a precondition for accepting the post. [Al-Shorouk, Arabic, 11/24/2011]


11) The Obama administration is sending “private messages” to the SCAF urging the government to allow elections to proceed on schedule, which recognizing that the escalating political crisis could lead to violence at the polls. An anonymous senior administration official told The Washington Post, “Our goal would be for voting to go forward, because a delay would send the wrong message,” said a senior administration official.” [Washington Post, English, 11/24/2011]

12) On November 23, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed support for the concessions offered to protesters by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. “He said a number of things that Egyptians have been wanting to hear and have been needing reassurance on,” she said. [Christian Science Monitor, English, 11/23/2011]

13) Three American students at AUC were arrested in Cairo on November 23 and accused of throwing Molotov cocktails at security forces during the protests. Public and state security prosecutors have interviewed the students. State Department Spokesman Victoria Nuland Nuland said that the embassy has been in contact with Egyptian authorities about the three detained students and expected to gain consular access to them on November 23. [Christian Science Monitor, English, 11/23/2011]

Photo Credit: Associated Press


Protesters overwhelming rejected the SCAF’s offer to expedite the transition to civilian rule through a popular referendum. Demonstrations continued in several cities on November 23, with additional casualties reported in Alexandria, bringing the official death toll to 35. Meanwhile, a number of major political parties are reportedly considering calling on the SCAF to postpone the first stage of the parliamentary elections for two weeks.


1) Protesters overwhelming rejected the SCAF’s offer to expedite the transition to civilian rule through a popular referendum. Demonstrations continued in several cities on November 23, with additional casualties reported in Alexandria, bringing the official death toll to 35. After the Interior Ministry promised to withdraw security forces from the square, soldiers were deployed to the side streets around the square, prompting a group of al-Azhar imams to try to negotiate a truce between protesters and the armed forces. Hostilities ceased temporarily on the afternoon of November 23 after the two sides agreed to a truce. [VOA, English, 11/23/2011] [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/23/2011] [Al-Jazeera, English, 11/23/2011] [Al-Masry al-Youm, English, 11/23/2011]


2) The SCAF published a statement to its official Facebook page on November 23 denying using any tear gas canisters against and stressing that the armed forces have been instructed not to use weapons of any kind against the Egyptian people. The SCAF also urged youth to ignore rumors. [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/23/2011]

3) In a televised speech on November 22, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi expressed “regret” over the clashes in Tahrir Square and announced several concessions:

  • The SCAF is prepared to hold a referendum on immediately transferring power to civilian authority if people demand it.
  • Tantawi pledged to hold presidential elections no later than June 2012 and said that the SCAF is committed to holding parliamentary elections as scheduled, with the first round to begin on November 28.
  • Tantawi formally accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet, which will continue performing its functions until the formation of a "national salvation government." [YouTube, Arabic, 11/22/2011]

4) Minutes before Tantawi’s speech, the Cabinet announced on its official Facebook page that the Interior Ministry will withdraw security forces from Tahrir Square. [The Daily News Egypt, English, 11/22/2011] [Facebook, Arabic, 11/22/2011]

5) The SCAF issued a statement, Communique No. 82, announcing that the investigation into violence at Maspero and Tahrir Square will be transferred from a military to a civilian prosecutor. [Al-Ahram, English, 11/23/2011]

6) Presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei has outlined conditions for leadership of the new salvation government that the SCAF has agreed to form, amid reports that the SCAF Chief of Staff Sami Anan met leaders of political parties on November 22 to discuss the possibility of appointing ElBaradei to lead the new government. ElBaradei did not attend the meeting, and said he would only accept the appointment if parliamentary elections proceed as scheduled on November 28, and if his nomination is approved by the new parliament. He also insisted on the authority to make decisions without interference by the SCAF. [Al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 11/23/2011]


7) A number of major political parties are considering calling on the SCAF to postpone the first stage of the parliamentary elections for two weeks, according to anonymous sources close to the discussions. The Wafd Party had floated a similar proposal in a public statement on November 22. Polling is due to begin on November 28 in 9 governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, where the largest anti-military demonstrations are taking place. [Al-Ahram, English, 11/23/2011]


8) Responding to Tantawi’s speech on November 22, the April 6 Youth Movement vowed to continue its sit-in in Tahrir and other governorates until all four of its demands are achieved: 1) conducting a presidential election by the the end of April; 2) transferring power to a civilian presidential council; 3) forming a national salvation government with full powers independent from the SCAF; 4) and launching immediate investigations into the clashes in Tahrir. [Al-Masry al-Youm, English, 11/23/2011]

9) Several political parties reportedly delivered a collective apology to the protesters “for not providing them with a political cover for the past 72 hours,” according to Amr Hamzawy, an independent liberal parliamentary candidate. [UPI, English, 11/23/2011]

10) Presidential candidate Amr Moussa called on the SCAF to immediately cease violence against protesters. [Al-Shorouk, Arabic, 11/23/2011]


11) The White House stepped of criticism of the SCAF on November 22. “The violence needs to stop,’’ White House press secretary Jay Carney said. “The Egyptians need to be able to decide their future and decide it in a peaceful manner.’’ [AP, English, 11/22/2011]

12) State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called for restraint on November 22, saying, “We condemn the excessive force used by the police.’’ “We strongly urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint, to discipline its forces and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves,” Nuland said. [AP, English, 11/22/2011]

Photo Credit: Al Jazeera

Tear gas in Tahrir.jpg

Less than five days before the first post-Mubarak elections, the situation in Tahrir Square is the worst it has been since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 earlier this year. The level of force and the brutality of the security forces surpass anything that was seen in a single incident during the 18-day uprising. The final number of those killed is unconfirmed as the events continue to unfold, but it is over 30 and the number of injured is over 2,000.

Field hospitals set up by volunteer doctors and nurses in the square have been directly targeted with rubber-coated bullets and tear gas forcing them to move to multiple locations including the Omar Makram Mosque and later the Qasr el Dubara Church. Eyewitnesses report that security forces consistently target the head and torso of protesters. Ahmad Harara is a protester who lost his right eye on January 28 amid violent clashes with police forces orchestrated by Mubarak's interior minister Habib el-Adly. Harara lost his left eye on November 19 during violent clashes with security forces orchestrated by the army. A real crisis is taking place as you read these words, nothing short of urban warfare against civilians.

As it has been the case during Mubarak's tenure and during the 18-day uprising, the SCAF is using state media and the security apparatus against the very civilians they should serve. In addition to the violent crackdown on protesters, journalists continue to be targeted and activists detained. A sweeping media campaign is taking place, in which generals appear on television shows denying any wrongdoing. As was done during the 18-day uprising, officials claim that hidden agendas, paid wrongdoers and foreign agents are behind every violent incident since February. Contrary to those statements there is mounting evidence, including images and videos incriminating police and army forces in every incident - most notably the massacre at Maspero, when a predominantly Coptic protest was targeted last October.

These appearances by ex-regime sympathisers and army generals in the media have attempted to further divide the population and to incite violence between Egyptians. During the Maspero Massacre, state TV directly incited violence against Coptic Christians by claiming they were attacking the army. Now, state TV is inciting violence against anyone who is facing the army forces in Tahrir Square by making the same claim. On the other hand, officials have shown a complete evasion of responsibility towards the state and the people.

In addition to high-profile clashes, there has been an unending stream of individual cases, such as last week's death of an army officer who is associated with the 6th of April Movement, and the death of Essam Atta in police custody. Atta was given a prison sentence in a military court. He died when prison officers sodomised him with a water hose until his heart stopped. He was 23 years old. Atta is only one of nearly 13,000 prisoners sentenced in military tribunals since February, in what is deemed systemised political revenge. In all these incidents, big and small, officials claimed that investigations would take place. There has not been a single report from any investigation nor a single official, soldier or officer implicated in any of those events.

Many believe that the upcoming elections are the only way out of this political crisis. However, there are some important questions: How can these be free elections when there are thousands of political prisoners? How can these elections be secured when the Ministry of Interior has not been reformed and continues to focus its power against political activity rather than crime and security? How can these elections be reliable when the transitional government that is overseeing it is completely toothless and has proven itself unreliable? And finally, do the elections even matter so long as the SCAF retains an unshakable iron fist on the country's politics? Democracy does not only mean counting votes. Lest we forget, Mubarak too held elections.

Egyptians in Tahrir Square are not facing a fascist regime. The SCAF lacks an ideology shaping its actions and decisions. This absence of a clear ideology makes the fight for Egypt's freedom even more difficult. The attacks on Egyptians' sovereignty and freedom are ad hoc and is largely driven by a regime that is fighting to protect its assets and its grip on power and economy. Many high-level officials are marred in secret deals related to everything, from manufacturing and trade to land sales and development projects to weapon deals. Finally, the United States' annual financial aid to the military over the past 40 years has been unsupervised by civilian society.

Until these words were written, there has been no official statement from the US regarding the violence. And previous statements have only called for "restraint on all sides". This is not a call for the US to intervene in Egyptian domestic affairs, to the contrary. The US has been involved in Egyptian domestic affairs for the past 40 years with its support of dictators, and now gives unshaken support to the very institution that is hindering any hopes for true democratic transition in Egypt.

At the core of the present crisis is the definition of the very term "revolution". For the people willing to give their lives in Tahrir Square in the face of unrestrained violence, "revolution" implies a radical change in the political culture that has dominated this country and held it back from its potential. The army generals continue to speak about the "January 25 Revolution" in the past tense, as if it were limited to the 18-day uprising. These unfolding events should be a clear wake-up call that the revolution is just beginning.

This piece was originally published on Al Jazeera on November 22, 2011.

Mohamed Elshahed is a doctoral candidate in the Middle East Studies Department at New York University. He currently lives in Cairo, where he is conducting dissertation research on urban planning in Egypt. Mr. Elshahed has a Bachelor of Architecture degree from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a Master in Architecture Studies from MIT. Follow him on Twitter @Cairobserver.

Photo Credit: Reuters