by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 11, Safar, 1433)
The degeneration of Muslim societies has gone so far that nothing is considered sacred any more, not even the honour of Muslim women. On December 17, when six soldiers attacked and wrestled a young girl to the ground in Cairo, ripping her ‘abayah and exposing her body, it sent shock waves throughout Egypt as well as the broader Muslim world.
The degeneration of Muslim societies has gone so far that nothing is considered sacred any more, not even the honour of Muslim women. On December 17, when six soldiers attacked and wrestled a young girl to the ground in Cairo, ripping her ‘abayah and exposing her body, it sent shock waves throughout Egypt as well as the broader Muslim world. One of the soldiers then stomped on her chest as the girl lay unconscious. The scene was captured on an amateur video and circulated on the internet, going viral. It became a powerful symbol to mobilize the women of Egypt to denounce such disrespect, by their own people no less, to their honour. While the young Egyptian girl has disappeared from public view because of the stigma attached to her mistreatment, the soldiers’ act of dishonour so enraged women that on December 20 they staged one of the largest rallies ever held in Cairo.
Will the insult of this young Egyptian woman have the same effect as Mohamed Bouazzizi’s self-immolation on December 17, 2010 in Tunisia that sparked the uprisings still raging throughout the Muslim East? It is yet to be seen but the incident marks a turning point in the Egyptian uprising and may make it virtually impossible for the military to hold on to power for too long. The uprising that began exactly a year ago, ousted Hosni Mubarak from power but the old order has remained intact. Sentinels of the old order perpetrated the outrageous act but it would be wrong to assume that the soldiers did it on their own. It is the mindset of the military — they are above the law and can do no wrong — that has encouraged such behaviour.
This was reflected in the condescending press conference General Adel Emara, deputy Defence Minister and member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), held on December 19 in which he praised the club-wielding soldiers as “heroes”. He claimed they showed “restraint” while they were beating protesters. He even dismissed the public humiliation of the young girl when soldiers ripped her ‘abayah. This was not an isolated incident although it was the most shocking; there were several other girls and women similarly attacked and mistreated.
The brusque, finger-wagging general denounced the protesters as paid “thugs” and “conspirators.” While he was addressing the press conference that was packed with pro-regime journalists, state-owned television ran footage of some young Egyptians “admitting” to being paid to indulge in vandalism and set buildings on fire. Such staged confessions are not new. On January 6, 2011, when several Coptic churches were firebombed in Egypt, the regime and its pliant media immediately blamed Islamic “extremists” for these acts of terrorism. It later turned out that the regime’s own thugs were responsible so that attention could be deflected from the regime’s failures and favour could be curried with its Western masters that it alone can stand between their interests and chaos. Today, the state media is performing a similar function — serving the new masters in uniform.
Since the state media would not convey their message or tell the truth about what is underway in Egypt, some political parties and human rights groups announced they would screen videos of police and army brutality across the country. The announcement preceded by a couple of hours the historic — and unprecedented — march by the women on December 20. Old habits, it is said, die hard. The state media continues to act in much the same way it did when Mubarak was in power. Then every broadcast started with the activities of the ra’is (president); now it is what the field marshal said or did. That the field marshal was appointed by Mubarak and served him loyally for 20 years have made most people realize that they have merely traded Mubarak’s business suits with Tantawi’s army uniform; the policy remains unchanged.
The rare public protest by women, young and old, religious and secular, however, appears to have rattled the military high command. It is one thing to attack and beat up men — young and old — this is considered routine but when the victims are women and humiliated in the manner in which they were, and then the women organize a protest, it becomes a different matter. The military council felt the heat so much that despite General Emara’s threatening posture at his press conference a day earlier, following the women’s rally on December 20, the military retreated offering “sincerest apologies to the great women of Egypt for what happened” and promised that those responsible would be reprimanded.
This is highly unlikely. Soldiers have routinely indulged in such brutal acts without anyone being reprimanded, much less punished. Besides, the military has offered such apologies on numerous previous occasions only to resort to the same brutal tactics again. After the November 8 rallies that resulted in 40 deaths, the military offered an apology but when the protests erupted again on November 25, did the army show restraint? Instead, they have so far shot and killed about 15 protesters including the horrible mistreatment of women. Soldiers have even hurled furniture from atop the parliament building. It is impossible for soldiers to behave in this manner without encouragement from their officers. It is also clear that such behaviour has not been discouraged.
It was, however, the women’s rally and the posters they carried that shook the generals in their boots. “Egypt was stripped,” one poster read. Another depicted the image of the young girl being assaulted and her ‘abayah being ripped off by six soldiers. “Even those not sympathetic to protesters can’t deny the power of an image of a defenseless woman being attacked,” said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Despite the pain it caused [the ripping of ‘abayah], it was a slap in the face of the military council, it weakened its power and showed its true face to the world,” said Ghada Ibrahim, who was beaten and detained during protests on December 16.
“If you don’t leave your house today to confront the militias of Tantawi, you will leave your house tomorrow so they can rape your daughter,” one sign declared. “I came so that girls are not stripped in the streets again,” said a 67-year-old grandmother, Afa Helal, who was demonstrating for the first time, “and because my daughters are always going to Tahrir. The army is supposed to protect the girls not strip them!”
Their slogans were equally powerful: “Drag me, strip me, my brothers’ blood will cover me!” the women chanted. “Where is the field marshal?” they demanded, referring to Tantawi. “The girls of Egypt are here,” they shouted in unison and “Egyptian girls are a red line.” A group of men, including newly elected members of parliament, formed a shield around them as they marched in the streets.
The reinvigorated protest movement has so unnerved the regime that the military-appointed Kamal Ganzouri went on state television on December 22 to plead for “calm”. He said everyone should settle down for two months, forget the past and move forward. This is typical of those that have done wrong and do not wish to make amends. Ganzouri can forget the past because he and his ilk have not suffered. What restitution is available to the victims of state brutality?
As pressure mounts on the military, it will resort to even more desperate measures. Typical of these was the allegation by Ganzouri that protesters planned to launch an armed uprising on January 25 on the first anniversary of the protests that ousted Mubarak. The military has already resorted to arms to crush the uprising and smother people’s aspirations. How long will it be able to hold on to power is debatable but what is certain, the women’s protest has energized the movement and will have far reaching consequences.