Tahrir protest to underscore deep frustration with Egypt’s military

“Take to the streets on July 8, the revolution is still on,” reads graffiti on Qasr al-Aini street a few miles from Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 25 January revolution. This graffiti attests to the disillusionment and frustration of many Egyptians with the course taken by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

On Friday 8 July, this frustration will be manifested in the streets, as thousands are expected to attend a protest in Tahrir Square reminiscent of the 18-day uprising.

Revisiting the slogans of the revolution helps explain the roots of this frustration; millions of Egyptians rallied in different squares nationwide chanting “the people want to topple the regime.” This slogan – first coined by the Tunisians, then borrowed by the Egyptians, who passed it on to much of the Arab world – was not the only catchphrase of the revolution.

Since day one, protesters shouted more indicative but less sexy slogans for dignity, freedom and social justice. After five months without Mubarak, political forces feel that none of these essential rights have been met, a sentiment which raises fears that the revolution might boil down to a change in leaders’ names instead of a system overhaul.

“The demands of the revolution have not changed since day one,” read a statement posted on the Facebook page of the 25 January Revolution Youth Coalition and signed by 22 political parties and groups, which are expected to spearhead Friday’s protests. ” It was not just about toppling the old regime but building a state where people can have freedom, dignity, rule of law and social justice.”

Last week’s clashes between protesters and police reignited fears that Egyptians’ dignity might still be at stake. The violence, which left hundreds injured, was posited as evidence that Mubarak’s notorious police apparatus was still in place.

“What happened is unacceptable under any circumstances and reminds us of practices that we thought had ended,” Shahir Georges, a co-founder of the liberal Egypt Freedom Party, which has yet to be officially established, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. The deployment of tear gas and rubber bullets – some human rights groups alleged live ammunition was also used – provoked demands to immediately purge the police apparatus of Mubarak’s men, widely known for committing human rights violations.

These clashes came on the heels of growing disenchantment with delays in the trials of former Interior Minister Habib al-Aldy, his aides and police officers accused of killing protesters during the revolution. Since the fall of Mubarak, no official was convicted of killing protesters except one low-ranking policeman who was sentenced to death for killing 30 and injuring 15 in Cairo, but remains at large.

On Wednesday, martyrs’ families clashed with police, after the former learned of the court decision to release seven policemen accused of killing protesters and to adjourn hearings until 14 September. Last week, similar clashes erupted outside the courtroom in Cairo after the judge postponed Adly’s trial until 25 July.

A criminal court on Tuesday acquitted former Information Minister Anas al-Fiqqi and former Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali of charges of misusing public funds to sponsor a media campaign for Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The verdicts raised suspicions that the trials of ex-officials might boil down to light sentences or pardons. Some political commentators have linked the laxity to corruption of the judiciary and the strong ties between judges and former executive branch officials.

As for freedom, the second demand echoed during the revolution, it remains curtailed by the same arsenal of restrictive laws. The notorious Emergency Law, which allowed Mubarak’s regime to commit a plethora of human rights violations for three decades, remains in force.

Although the SCAF amended the political parties law to ease restrictions on political participation, observers and human rights groups still hold that other forms of associations such as NGOs and syndicates must be redeemed from Mubarak’s legacy. They maintain that to sow the seeds of civil society and genuine democracy, more laws should be revamped during the transitional phase.

In fact, freedom of expression and association are still curtailed. Despite the recent boom in new media outlets and audacious reporting, former press laws, which include at least 30 articles that can send a journalist to jail, remain intact.

“The same despotic structure we inherited from Mubarak is still there,” Essan Eddin Hassan, a human rights advocate told Al-Masry Al-Youm earlier this week. “If those running the country want to prosecute journalists, they can easily invoke these laws.”

In recent months, the military prosecutor has summoned at least five journalists for questioning over their reporting. In one incident, a blogger and a TV host were summoned because the former accused the military of torturing protesters on the host's show.

Emerging professional and labor unions operate in the shadow of similar paradox. Workers and professionals are seizing the relative openness, which largely results from weak law enforcement post-revolution, to ignore restrictive laws and form independent unions.

Meanwhile, the final draft of the 2011 budget had dealt a blow to the last of the three main demands of the revolution. For the sake of reducing the deficit, the cabinet decreased social service and salary spending. In the last draft announced earlier this week, education expenditures were slated at LE52 billion, down from LE54.3 billion in the initial budget plan, health-related spending dropped to LE23.8 from LE24.3 billion and unemployment benefits were cut in half from LE2 billion to LE1 billion.

The cabinet also went back on its earlier pledge to raise the minimum wage to LE700. The budget sets a minimum salary of LE684. Many political forces contend that the budget attests to the interim government’s failure to bring about social justice. They accused the cabinet of reproducing Mubarak’s economic policies, which mainly benefit the rich. Some experts argued that the government could have reduced the deficit by taxing real estate assets and capital gains to generate revenue rather than cutting social services.

All these concerns are expected to be raised in Friday’s protests when most political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are set to take to Tahrir.

Islamists had earlier opposed the protest for fear that other factions might use it as a platform to pressure the military to postpone elections until a new constitution is drafted, but after organizers and participating groups said they would not use Friday to push that particular agenda, the Muslim Brotherhood and some Salafis said they would join in. In a statement issued Wednesday, the group explained that it had changed its position given recent developments including the mistreatment of martyrs’ families and the slow-paced trials of “tyrants and killers.”

To overcome the Islamist-secular divide and ensure a high turn-out, some youth-led groups are emphasizing the need to unite and “save” the revolution. Protesters have raised the slogan “the revolution first" in an attempt to put aside debate over whether to draft a constitution before elections.

In recent months, the divide between the Muslim Brotherhood and secular groups has widened. On one hand, Islamists insist on adhering to the military-backed schedule, which slates elections for September and entrusts the new parliament with electing a 100-member assembly to draft the constitution. The plan was approved by the public referendum in March with the backing of more than 70 percent of voters. But secular groups say this plan serves Islamists, who can sweep any early elections, given their strong support base, which will in turn allow them to monopolize how the constitution is drafted, some fear. They demand that the constitution be drafted by representatives of different political and social forces before elections.

Lately, several parties sought to heel this rift by holding talks with the Muslim Brotherhood. They hope to agree on a set of basic principles that should be included in the new constitution regardless of who dominates the new parliament.

For Friday, some forces are calling for an open-ended sit-in until their demands are met, while others, including the Muslim Brotherhood, have asked their followers to withdraw from the square in the afternoon.

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