Is Tantawi on the Ropes?

  The “invisible foreign hands” that Egypt’s ruling military council says have been destabilizing the country were actually quite visible and homegrown throughout a very tense Cairo yesterday. Clumps of […]


The “invisible foreign hands” that Egypt’s ruling military council says have been destabilizing the country were actually quite visible and homegrown throughout a very tense Cairo yesterday.

Clumps of grim-faced men in deep discussion blocked sidewalks and filled smoke-filled seesha cafes to watch replays of the previous night’s Port Said soccer riot that killed 75 and injured hundreds.

Loud broadcasts of an emergency session of the new Egyptian Parliament could be heard from parked taxis, where more passersby stopped to listen as leading Muslim Brotherhood member and Parliamentarian Essam el Erian placed blame for the deaths of the mostly young soccer fans on the “deliberate neglect and absence of the military and the police.”

This outrage appeared in sharp contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s hitherto support of the army’s timeline for transferring power to civilian rule to be held until after the writing of the country’s constitution and the presidential elections in June.

By noon yesterday, organized soccer fans or “Ultras” began massing for later afternoon marches to Tahrir Square and the nearby Ministry of the Interior:  the Zamalek team fans at Midan Sphinx, a roundabout in the Mohandaseen neighborhood and the Ahly fans, who were victims of the previous night’s attack, at the Gezira Sports Club on Zamalek Island.

“Down with, down with, military rule,” they shouted, along with more obscene chants mocking the police and military.

By late afternoon, maybe a thousand riot police, along with tanks, and troop vehicles had gathered behind the barricades that ringed the Ministry of Interior.  Lines of soldiers in reserve, dressed in helmets and flak jackets, sat on the sidewalk, sullenly watching a few local residents skirt commanders rushing back and forth and shouting into walkie-talkies.

At cross streets leading to the pink Interior Ministry building, lines of soldiers stood shoulder to shoulder facing a crowd whistling and shouting:  “You hurt us, we’ll tear down the barbed wire, and come hurt you.”

Within hours these young soldiers, many the same age and from the same neighborhoods as the thousands of demonstrators on the other side of the barbed wire, would be lobbing tear gas at the screaming mob.

Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the 6th of April Youth Movement and one of the organizers of last year’s revolution, appeared at one of the intersections, trying to calm the crowd, shouting, “Peaceful, peaceful,” and begging them to retreat to Tahrir Square.

As evening progressed, local street lamps were extinguished.  Protestors then lit fires in the streets.  Ambulance sirens began an incessant wail, and motorcycles disappeared in and out of the clouds of smoke and tear gas, ferrying injured protestors overcome by the toxic fumes to field hospitals set up in local mosques and on sidewalks.

By dawn, three protestors had died and 400 treated for injuries, according to the Ministry of Health.

On “al Midan,” a popular evening talk show hosted by journalist Ibrahim Eissa, the topic of growing unrest after the country’s year of instability had the guests discussing their concerns about the country degenerating into further chaos.

“If you look at history, unrest like this can spiral.  In the past, it has led to the assignation of public figures,” Eissa said.

Over this post-revolution year—marked by power struggles between the mostly liberal secular youth that led the revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood who have won half of Parliament, and army generals bent on protecting their massive wealth and power—it has been the public who have suffered and been most impacted by a plunging economy and rising crime due to lack of action by the country’s largely corrupt and now resentful police force.

Meanwhile, according to political activists, the ruling junta of generals, known as SCAF or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Field Commander Mohamed Tantawi, have been using increasingly desperate old regime tactics to try to protect their power and independence from civilian oversight.

Initially their focus was to brutally silence the protestors calling for them to relinquish power.  This proved a public relations nightmare when videos of them stripping and brutalizing female demonstrators made front pages around the globe.  More recently they have attempted to unite the country around charges of foreign interference by raiding foreign-funded, democracy promoting NGOs.  This also seemed to backfire when their detention of American NGO officials at the Cairo Airport only served to jeopardize their annual $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid, while receiving little public notice or support.

When Tantawi partially lifted the country’s emergency law, long a means of political repression, hoping to assuage political anger the day before the revolution’s one-year anniversary, it only worked to increase public outrage.

And now in what is being called the “Port Said soccer massacre,” protestors claim the inadequate police presence, lack of weapon screening, and sequence of gate opening and closings that trapped stampeding spectators, was engineered to punish soccer fans who had played critical roles in last year’s demonstrations, while also hoping to persuade a public wearied by instability of the need for a strong hand at the top.

Instead, however, the public has been quick to blame the ruling army council:

“Where was the security in the stadium?  Why didn’t the mayor and director of security attend the game?  I am outraged.  So many beautiful young people died.  SCAF engineered it.  They must go.  They must go now,” said Magdi Hussein, an artist in his 60s, who had joined the protest in Tahrir Square.

Today, the tone of the goma’a or Friday noon sermon echoing from one mosque’s speakers in Mohandeseen rang with outrage, even as riot police rebuilt and reinforced the barricades to the Parliament buildings before growing crowds outside Tahrir Square.

And Shadi Hamid, Middle East expert and director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, tweeted:  “Egypt’s military has quite possibly overseen the most terribly mismanaged transition in the recent history of transitions.”


About Colleen Gillard and Georgia Wells

Covering the events in Cairo after the Jan. 25 revolution and following elections.