Tearing Egypt apart

By IndepthAfrica
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Jan 31st, 2013
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Mariz Tadros
The eruption of protests, violence and civil disobedience in Egypt this month is a replay of the scene in 2011 before the status quo was ruptured, but the current regime’s attacks on women and religious minorities in order to quell opposition is more pervasive than anything seen before, argues Mariz Tadros

It is too soon to predict how the current battle between the Muslim Brotherhood-led regime and the opposition in Egypt will end, as violence escalates and spreads, claiming 50 lives this week – and counting.

There are three major differences between the political scene at the wake of the revolution in January 2011 and the January 2013 anniversary of the events. First, unlike President Mubarak whose sole constituency were members of his party, a handful of businessmen and a minute proportion of the population, President Morsi has been elected to  leadership through a 51% vote (though some political analysts have questioned the credibility of the results ) and therefore he presents himself to the people as “the elected President”.  Second, while Mubarak’s use of force relied exclusively on the security apparatus and its hired thugs, the Morsi regime not only relies on state apparatuses of repression, but also within the civil society arena, on its own militias and the Salafi constituency. The Muslim Brotherhood government has not shied from unleashing the powers of the state and militia forces against citizens.  The third difference is that while Mubarak sought to instrumentalize Islam to prop his rule, the Muslim Brotherhood regime has claimed that it represents Islam itself. Some citizens feel that though they have experienced a real drop in the quality of their lives, they can’t revolt against Morsi because he is the elected and believing President who prays at the mosque every Friday and is a God-fearing man.

There are many commonalities in the conditions before the revolution of the 2011 and the situation today, including acute economic hardship, thriving corruption, the social and political exclusion of large segments of the population, and a President oblivious to the angry pulse of the street (in fact President Morsi’s speech, two days after the eruption of violence on the 25th of January 2013, is strongly reminiscent of Mubarak’s first speech after the uprisings seen on the same month, two years earlier).  Yet the three differences mentioned above have produced a deeply polarized society, the extent of which is incomparable to the scene two years ago. In such a context, the millioniyya in Tahrir Square (one million person) has become ineffective for eliciting change.  Mass mobilization of an oppositional bloc is countered with the mobilization of a pro-Islamist bloc. Further, the combined forces of the state, army and militia in the hands of the authorities shows no restraint in the ruthless repression of the citizenry. The political exploitation of religion has created two sides: the believers who observe God’s laws, and the presumed infidels who comprise all Muslims who oppose Morsi’s rule, in addition to the religious minorities. As one citizen put it simply “we want Morsi because the Christians are against him”. Against the background of stalled dialogue processes, and the lack of responsiveness of the Muslim Brotherhood to the opposition’s demands – which include revisiting the contentious elements of the constitution, power sharing – some resistance movements that resort to violence have emerged.

Women’s participation in millioniyyas two years ago played an instrumental role in the activism against Mubarak’s regime, and the women’s march to Tahrir Square on the 25th of January 2013 greatly contributed to the energy and numbers of the protestors. Yet on the same day, after dark in Tahrir Square, men organized in groups began to target women for sexual assault. Shoft Taharosh,  a youth led initiative that was formed to address sexual assault, reported dealing with nineteen cases of assault, six of which required medical intervention, in addition to other cases of assaulted women they became aware of. The cases of sexual assault are in fact more numerous since some are likely to have chosen not to file complaints. There is a need to recognize that these acts of sexual assault are not driven by the same motives as the social forms of sexual harassment that one regularly witnesses on the streets of Egypt (i.e by men showing off their power or taking it as a way to pass time or “have a good time”.) The kind of sexual assault that was witnessed in Tahrir Square on 25th of January 2013 is politically motivated and pre-orchestrated. Women who have a profile of political activism are a prime target of organized men’s assault.

The acts of sexual assault witnessed in Tahrir Square follow a familiar  pattern that we have witnessed since protestors were attacked in Mohamed Mahmoud Street by the police force in November 2011. At that time, one young man explained in an interview, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi followers had formed a human cordon to prevent the protestors from entering Mohamed Mahmoud Street. When they tried to pass through, the Islamists attacked them, and many women and men were sexually molested by having their bodies touched and fingered.  The wave of politically motivated sexual assault has continued, being witnessed in June 2012 against a demonstration of women who were ironically, protesting the increased incidence of sexual assault against them and in Tahrir Square in November 2012. The attacks by the Islamists at el Etehadiyya palace in December 2012 exposed the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis violent and sexual assault of women whom they “captured”.

While the Mubarak regime resorted to thugs to molest women as a tactic to break the opposition, and SCAF soldiers stripped and assaulted women protestors, politically motivated sexual assault of women has gained new momentum under the current Brotherhood regime. First, is the scale of politically motivated sexual violence that we have observed under the Brotherhood’s watch. Second, the pattern of sexual assault suggests that it is undertaken in a systematic, pre-planned way and involves co-ordinated groups of men acting in unison. Farah Shash, a psychologist at El Nadim Centre for the treatment and rehabilitation of victims of torture and violence has observed that the sexual assaults often follow a particular pattern: “they take place in the same way and sometimes around the same area. The pattern is as follows: it starts with around 15- 20 men who surround a woman or two, they put their hands together, and their number increases during the harassment assault? to around 50 men. They form two circles, an inner one that  attacks the women, harassing, groping, assaulting them and ripping off their clothes trying to get them naked, and an outer circle that protects the inner one and attacks any man who tries to save the girls. Several incidents took place at the entrance of Mohamed Mahmoud Street and in-front of Hardees in-front of the square”.  One young woman told me that in June 2012 she tried to save a girl who was being assaulted in the middle of one of these circles, and she couldn’t get through because the men were harassing her so much and pulling her towards the centre of the circle. There is a singular single, blatant objective of such politically motivated attacks: to render women too scared to go out to protest, and to turn families and society against women’s political activism. So far, it has not worked, with women activists taking to the street in large numbers (as we witnessed on the 25th of January 2013). However,  no perpetrator has been incriminated and, no action has been taken against the criminals. Shash argues that the sexual harassment of women by collectivities of men is intended to make it impossible for victims to be able to identify their individual assaulters. However, even when individual men were identified, as was the case in one female protestor’s account of her subjection to sexual assault at el Ettehadiya palace, no one has been arrested and no legal action has been taken against the perpetrators. In fact, at el Ettehadiyya palace, the security forces played an active role in enabling the Islamists to “keep” their “captured women”.  The ruling regime neither issued an official condemnation nor made any acknowledgement of women’s exposure to sexual assault- even the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and the former Mubarak regime dared not go so far.

The rupturing of the very social fabric of society in order to subjugate the opposition has also taken a more dangerous turn in the form of scapegoating Christians for political dissidence. The Mubarak regime’s secret political police often used sectarianism as a divide and rule strategy – while SCAF was behind one of the country’s worst massacres in contemporary history against Christians, that at Maspero on the 9th October, 2011. This open nationwide incitation to violence against Christians has never been displayed  in such a systematic and consistent way.

Militia movements like the Black Bloc brigade have emerged to counter the violence of the regime were observed in Tahrir Square on the 25th of January 2013. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Ikhwan online website announced (and later repealed) a statement that the Black Bloc brigade were formed by the Coptic Orthodox Church and have been engaged in acts of more widespread violence.

The Black Bloc have come out categorically denying any association with the church and have accused the Brotherhood of seeking to incite sectarianism. This is not the first time that the Muslim Brotherhood have turned the battle against the opposition into a religious war involving the believers and the unbelievers. In December 2012,  Mohamed el Beltagy, Head of the Freedom and Justice Party accused Christians of being the main proponents behind the opposition at el Etehadiyya Palace. In the context of a nation deeply ripped by sectarianism, the continuous representation of the opposition as being the (non-Muslim religious enemy) infidel can only be interpreted as a step towards bringing the country to the brink of a civil war.

The assault on women and minorities has been part and parcel of a larger policy of repressing dissidence, including the subjection of revolutionaries and protestors to arrests and disappearances, the demonization of the independent media and press, and the struggle with the workers’ movements. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood-led government’s systematic use of politically motivated sexual assault against peaceful female and male protestors, and their decision to represent the political struggle as a religious battle against the Christians who foment all political opposition has surpassed many of the most brutal tactics of former authoritarian regimes in Egypt. They strike at the very fabric of Egyptian society not because women and religious minorities are the weakest segments but because they have the least political clout to launch a counter-assault  There is very little social sympathy or empathy within the wider population for their predicament, and hence the Brotherhood are targeting segments of the population that would be met with the least social resistance to their repression.

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