Yesterday (Friday, April 8th) was an eventful day for the Arab Spring, with protests stepping up across the region. Julian Cole provides a good overview, from an Iraqi anti-occupation demo on the anniversary of Saddam’s fall, to self immolation in Amman and protester deaths in Syria and Yemen (update: . In Egypt, widely regarded as a revolutionary bellwether, events were particularly disturbing.
Friday’s demonstration had been widely publicized as a time for renewed show of strenght, with renewed calls for a million man march and a mock trial for Mubarak. There were a number of groups and causes at play. The Brotherhood made a large showing following notable absences, in addition to the standard youth and revolutionary groups, and the novel addition of several military officers and soldiers who joined the demonstrations in order to protest corruption in the military. The most resounding complaints focused on dissatisfaction with the criminal prosecution of regime figures (“slow justice is injustice” was a new chant), and dissatisfaction with the military’s performance in safegarding the revolution.
The role of the military in the Egyptian revolution has always been as obviously critical as it has been confounding. I was among the many who did some head scratching when they were met with hugs and kisses on Jan 28th. The shows of solidarity upon Mubark’s ouster where inspiring, and despite the strange debate that then ensued regarding a Turkish model, it was easy to see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as benevolent in juxtaposition to interior ministry foot soldiers.
Of course, the honeymoon has now showed some signs of strain. An earlier post gave this a quick review, when the military last week charged a critical blogger with “insulting the military”, which risks 3 years in prison if the military tribunal is so inclined. This, together with an odd handling of the Egyptian consitution and swift justice for protesters, has led a wild rumor mill about the military’s role and intention, as well as growing public criticism–which reached something of a head in yesterday’s demonstration. Simultaneously, signs of power struggles within the military, notably including the first military attack on protesters, which was blamed on an independent order, and critics from within the institution, who openly committed defection to the demonstrations.
Accounts of what actually happened on Friday remain muddied. Tahrir square saw somewhere between 40,000 and 200,000 demonstrators, the mock trial seems to have proceeded as might be expected, and military officers that had joined the protesters were vocal in accusing military brass of corruption. At about 3 in the morning, the military then began violently dispersing the 1,500 protesters who had camped out, firing weapons–allegedly live ammunition, reportedly over protesters’ heads. According to a military statement issued today, this was in reaction to an influx of “outlaws” in the square, a claim roundly denied by protesters (read first-hand accounts here and here).
Whatever the motivation, there was significant gunfire reported in the following hours, and casings showed the ammunination to be live. Reuters allegedly reported 2 deaths, 3arabawy has posted eyewitness accounts military officers who had joined the protests were targeted and summarily executed, while activists on the ground are investigating what they expect to be a large number of deaths and injuries. There appears to be little certainty in the activist community about what actually motivated the attack. Some speculate that this was a show of strength in an internal power struggle, and that a coup is in the making. Others suggest that it is a communication failure within the institution.
Always enigmatic, there is no clarity coming from the military. In fact, there appear to be a host of anonymous and contradictory statements leaked and appearing on online Egyptian newspapers. It is hard to know what to make of this. But there is little doubt that the situation is perilous, with much riding on developments in the military’s black box. But despite the uncertainty, it seems likely that this will provoke further criticism of the SCAF and their hardline on protests, perhaps swinging some public opinion back towards demonstrations.
One might even expect to be astounded and inspired by the Egyptian people again, as they strengthen their resolve and return to the streets to demand a better social contract. That seemed to be the feeling this morning, as protesters regrouped to show their anger and resolve in a Tahrir now surrounded in barbed wire. There are clips below, compiled by 3arabawy below. The protesters dont seem to be holding their breath.