How Egypt’s Youth Forced the Issue
On March 22, 2011, Gen. Hasan Rowaini, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) met with a cross section of the youth leaders of the revolution, political activists, party heads, union organizers, and intellectuals. Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime on February 11, SCAF, which played a decisive role in ousting Mubarak, has been ruling the country since that fateful day.
Senior members of the armed forces have been conducting these meetings periodically to exchange ideas with influential individuals and major institutions within civil society. On that day, Gen. Rowaini proudly listed the accomplishments of his military council, including the dissolution of parliament, the appointment of a new government, the passage of the constitutional amendments, the plan to hold new democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in the fall, and the dismantlement of the infamous state security apparatus.
What he was not expecting was the criticism and frustration of the youth leaders, who accused the council of protecting the former president and his immediate family as well as covering up the corruption of major figures in the former regime. In front of Egypt’s elites, Gen. Rowaini was directly challenged by the youth, who were led that day by twenty-six year old Taqadum Al-Khatib.
Al-Khatib, a brilliant graduate of literature from Cairo University, has been working as an instructor of Eastern and Semitic languages at the University of Mansoura in the Nile Delta region while pursuing his graduate studies. But his Masters thesis defense was put on hold as he became absorbed in mobilizing his peers shortly before the onset of the revolution both in Upper Egypt where he grew up, as well as in Cairo and the Delta.
Taqadum was one of the most dynamic young leaders of the revolution. His presence at Tahrir Square since the first day of the revolution on January 25 earned him the respect and admiration of his colleagues. For over two weeks during those momentous days, he made Tahrir his permanent home, demonstrating, chanting, organizing, and leading in defiance of the regime’s security forces and, later, its thugs. During the revolution and after the downfall of Mubarak he was arrested and beaten by the former regime and its remnants.
Moreover, the young Egyptian is known for his sharp tongue and uncompromising advocacy for the objectives of the revolution. Hailing from Luxor in southern Egypt, he not only understood but also experienced firsthand the repression and the corruption of the former regime in a region where security forces used particularly brutal tactics to crack down against the opposition, especially against the Islamically-oriented or fiercely nationalist youth.
During his meeting with Gen. Rowaini, Taqadum told him that although the military council has realized some of the protestors’ objectives, it has been slow in carrying them out while completely ignoring important demands. He then repeated those demands, including banning Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), the replacement of all governors, the dissolution of all local councils (which are overwhelmingly filled by corrupt NDP officials), but above all the arrest and trial of Mubarak, his sons, and former senior officials who corrupted Egypt’s political and economic life for decades.
Irritated, the General was defensive in his response and charged that the youth were ungrateful and did not understand the complexities of the situation. He then answered that the military council could not simply fire 53,000 local officials and leave the localities ungoverned, nor was it “democratic” to ban an existing party that had the right to contest elections like all others- ignoring its authoritarian hold on power and history of organizing fraudulent elections for over three decades.
As he was further challenged that the council was covering up for Mubarak, Gen. Rowaini raised his tone in anger declaring, “We will not try him, we will not try him, we will not try him. End of story.”
In an equally defiant tone, the young Egyptian shouted back to the representative of the military council, “we will let the street decide between us and you.”
The following day the coalition of the youth of the revolution called for a demonstration for that Friday to protest a new law that would ban political demonstrations and impose stiff fines on its violators, as well as demanding the resignation of the governors and local officials. The government and the military council immediately backed down and explained that the law would only ban demonstrations that disrupt places of work or production to preserve Egypt’s economic stability.
The following Friday, April 1, was dubbed the “Friday to Salvage the Revolution,” by the youth organizers. On that afternoon, tens of thousands of Egyptians filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, with similar gatherings in Alexandria, Suez and other major cities, demanding the fulfillment of the revolution’s objectives. The demonstrators called for the banning of the NDP from public life, and questioned the commitment of the military council to root out corruption. Posters and chants called for the trial and punishment of former regime officials including Mubarak and his sons.
Although the state General Prosecutor ordered the arrest of former interior minister Habib Al-Adli, who supervised the crackdown on the demonstrators in the early days of the revolution, along with some corrupt oligarch businessmen, people were wary that major figures of the former regime such as Mubarak, his sons, his chief of staff, the speaker of parliament and president of the Shura council, were slipping away. Almost two months have passed without holding accountable any person from Mubarak’s inner circle.
Meanwhile, many coalitions and political blocs representing the revolutionary youth and opposition political movements formed after the regime’s collapse. But this happened amid warnings that counter-revolutionaries led by the remnants of the NDP were making a comeback based on the false pretenses of condemning the previous regime and utilizing the vast resources at their disposal to recast their damaged public standing in a new dye.
Furthermore, it became clear that wealthy businessmen with strong ties to Gamal Mubarak and NDP vestiges were sowing discord in society along geographic, sectarian, or class lines. Many reports in major Egyptian newspapers were accusing Mubarak and his family of orchestrating a return from their massive compound on the coastal city of Sharm Al-Shaikh on the Red Sea. Even the daily newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm claimed that a close associate of Mubarak received a call from the former president’s son complaining that no one had consulted them about the changes to the constitution.
On April 8, more than a million Egyptians of all stripes stood in Tahrir Square- gathered once again, this time for an event dubbed “Friday of Cleansing and Trial.” Presided by former Justice Mahmoud Al-Khodari, a mock trial of Mubarak took place with a former state prosecutor presenting witnesses and evidence of political and financial corruption. An individual wearing a Mubarak mask was eventually condemned and sentenced to the gallows amid the cheers of hundreds of thousands.
As people left the square by nighttime, several thousand people decided to remain in order to keep the pressure on the military council. Meanwhile, several individuals wearing military uniforms chanted anti-military slogans accusing their military superiors of collaborating with Mubarak and the U.S. When military police moved to detain them to find out whether they were genuine officers or civilians in military dress, a fight broke out that resulted in one death and dozens of injuries.
A preliminary investigation of the incident revealed that the bullet that killed the protester did not come from the military but rather from a sniper atop one of the high-rise buildings in Tahrir Square. The investigation by the government further concluded that the demonstrators that stayed at night were infiltrated by remnants of the NDP with the explicit purpose of sowing discord between the public and the army.
Meanwhile, various media reports claimed that the Mubarak family and their close associates felt emboldened because Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E, and the U.S. were pressuring the SCAF not to try them. In fact, the former president felt confident enough that he addressed the Egyptian people on April 10 as if he were still the president in a speech broadcast on the Saudi-owned satellite network Al Arabiya.
In his six-minute address, Mubarak denied that he or his sons had ever gained financially because of his position during his three-decade reign, or that he or his wife had ever owned property or held bank accounts outside of Egypt. He even threatened to sue anyone who would claim otherwise.
Still many reports in Egyptian publications accused Saudi Arabia of working against the fulfillment of the promise of the revolution because of its potential impact on the region, generally, or on Saudi Arabia in particular. Notable author Gamal Al-Ghitani wrote in Al-Akhbar,a few days later that “Saudi Arabia did not wish to see a progressive democratic state in Egypt because of its direct impact on Saudi Arabia.” He added that, “the address by the former president was a political act by Saudi Arabia in a direct challenge to the military council.” He even called it “an insult” by Mubarak and Saudi Arabia to SCAF and the Egyptian people.
Consistent with Mubarak’s trademark of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, the Egyptian public and most media outlets, including the state-owned TV channels and publications, widely condemned his speech and asked for the lifting of the perceived protection by the military council of Mubarak and his family.
The combination of the weekly massive demonstrations and call for Mubarak’s trial, the infiltration of the counter-revolutionaries led by the NDP remnants, and Mubarak’s arrogant address claiming his innocence, were the final nails in the coffin of the former regime. It seemed that whatever constraints or reservations previously existed on the state General Prosecutor to investigate the most senior officials of the former regime were now lifted.
So one-by-one former high-ranking ministers, who were mostly business tycoons tied to Mubarak’s son, were arrested including former Finance, Economy, Housing, Trade, Transportation, Tourism, Oil, Media, and Culture ministers, the former head of TV and Radio as well as many others.
But the most senior aides of Mubarak, dubbed the “untouchables” started to be investigated, accused and arrested one at a time. On April 7, Zakariya Azmi, Mubarak’s chief of staff and most trusted aid, was arrested. This was followed by the arrests of Ahmed Nazif, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister (April 10), Safwat El-Sherif; the president of the Shura council and NDP General Secretary (April 11); and Fathi Soroor, the Parliament Speaker (April 13).
But the biggest fish of all were Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa. On April 12, several prosecutors arrived at their mansion in Sharm Al-Shaikh. As the senior prosecutor started asking the former president questions, Mubarak objected and started yelling and shouting that he was the president. The prosecutor firmly told him that he was now a private citizen and directed him to lower his voice and answer the accusation that he ordered the killing of the demonstrators across Egypt during the January and February protests. Before proceeding further Mubarak suffered a mild heart attack and was transferred to a nearby hospital.
Once his condition stabilized, the prosecutors took Mubarak’s sons to the courthouse building in Sharm and asked them questions through the night. The inquiries centered on their role in the crackdown that resulted in over 800 deaths and 5,000 injuries, as well as on the massive cases of financial corruption in which they were directly implicated. By 6 AM they were ordered arrested and transferred by military helicopter to the Torah prison compound in Cairo, where all former officials have been detained.
The nation woke up on April 13 to the image of Gamal and Alaa Mubarak handcuffed and in white prison garb looking stunned and puzzled. The public felt relieved and triumphant. The promise of their revolution was being realized, while the heads of the counter-revolutionaries were exposed and punished.
Two days later, the former president himself was again questioned and ordered arrested for his role in the crackdown and the massive financial corruption. He was then ordered transferred on April 17 to be detained at a military hospital until his health was restored. He is said to be manically depressed and suicidal.
Meanwhile the former first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, was asked to appear before another state prosecutor this week to answer for her own financial corruption, especially those charitable projects that she headed while looting their bank accounts. In one case, she is accused of embezzling a $145 million donation from the European Union intended for the Alexandria Public Library. Observers believe that her arrest is also imminent.
On April 16, in a historic ruling, the Egyptian Administrative Court disbanded the NDP for its political and financial corruption and returned all its assets, estimated at tens of millions of dollars, to the Egyptian government. Most fittingly, Esam Sharaf, the Egyptian Prime Minister, in the same day, allocated the disbanded party’s magnificent headquarters building in Giza to Egypt’s Human Rights Commission. On the same weekend, the government also replaced twenty of twenty-seven governors, completing the purge of the most senior executives of the former regime.
A few days earlier, over fifty members of the coalitions of the youth revolution and political parties met and issued a statement commending the actions of the government against the corrupt former regime leaders and confirming the unity of purpose between the public and the army. The statement further suspended the weekly demonstrations in an effort to show support and appreciation of the speed of the ensuing actions to hold the heads of the former regime accountable for their crimes.
Elected by his peers, the statement was most appropriately read, at the headquarters of the national press syndicate, by none other than Taqadum Al-Khatib before a packed house. The young man had indeed fulfilled on his pledge to the military general. “The street” had spoken and the Egyptian youth had delivered.
ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org