Democraracy Now! correspondent in Cairo, Egypt.
Egypt is in the second day of its first elections since the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. On Monday, Egyptians waited in long lines across the country to choose their first-ever democratically elected parliament. The elections are being held in the wake of fierce clashes between protesters and police last week that left at least 42 people dead and more than 3,100 wounded. We play a video report filed by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous in Cairo about the election held in the aftermath of a deadly crackdown. "We’re right here, saying we want our rights... a civilian presidential council that is formed from people that represent us, and that is agreed upon, but they must have full authority, not just someone like before, like Essam Sharaf’s government, just a secretary that just carries out what the staff wants," says protester Rania Mohamed Fawzi. "No, we’ve been silent for a long time. This time, we are not silent, and we will get all our rights. And this won’t be like the first time. They said Mubarak left, and we all went home. No, this time, we won’t go home until we get all our rights." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Egypt’s in the second day of its first election since the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak. On Monday, Egyptians waited in long lines across the country to choose their first-ever democratically elected parliament. The elections are being held in the wake of fierce clashes between protesters and police that left at least 42 people dead and more than 3,100 wounded. It marked the worst violence in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster. Thousands of protesters remain in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, many of them boycotting the vote.
Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous has been on the ground reporting on the Egyptian revolution since it broke out nearly a year ago. He’s been in the streets of Cairo throughout the last week, reporting on the deadly clashes that preceded the national elections. As Egyptians headed to the polls, Sharif filed this report on an election held in the aftermath of the deadly crackdown.
PROTESTERS: Yasqot yasqot hokm el Askar! Yasqot yasqot hokm el Askar! Yasqot yasqot hokm el Askar! Yasqot yasqot hokm el Askar!
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: "Down with military rule!" The clarion call of a new uprising in Egypt. The revolution that erupted 10 months ago and succeeded in ousting 30-year autocrat Hosni Mubarak has reignited in Tahrir Square and has spread across the country. This time, protesters are rising up against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, that came to power after Mubarak’s ouster, in what is perhaps the biggest challenge to military rule in Egypt in 60 years.
The uprising was marked by some of the fiercest street battles between protesters and police since the revolution began and the launch of a new mass sit-in in Tahrir Square. This all comes at a pivotal point in Egypt’s transition. Parliamentary elections began on Monday, the first poll to select a new post-Mubarak government. While political parties have been scrambling over the past few weeks to organize and campaign, uncertainty surrounding the vote looms large, and the very legitimacy of the election itself is in question. The rules of the voting system are deeply confusing, and the mandate for the elected parliament remains unclear. More glaringly, the elections are taking place in the shadow of clashes that have left at least 42 protesters dead and more than 3,100 wounded in the past few days. Sherief Gaber is an Egyptian protester.
SHERIEF GABER: I think that the elections are not going to make a difference to the fundamental issue, that we’re living under a military government. It’s an exercise in legitimacy for the military to basically parade around the fact that they’re supposedly transitioning to democracy. The elections—the parliament is going to have no powers. It’s been a rush job. There will be probably more violence. And how can you even consider holding elections in light of the fact that we’ve had state violence happening for five days here, over 120 hours nonstop?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The clashes first erupted last Saturday, November 19th, when Central Security Forces stormed a small sit-in of a few dozen protesters in Tahrir Square. Riot police violently broke up the sit-in and beat those who had set up camp. In response, hundreds of protesters descended to Tahrir in solidarity. They clashed with security forces and forced them out of the square. The fighting quickly escalated into the fiercest street battles in post-Mubarak Egypt.
SHERIEF GABER: We’ve seen an absolutely brutal assault by police and by the army on the demonstrators here, starting with an attack on a group of wounded from the original 18-day uprising. Since then, we’ve seen them using live ammunition of various kinds. We’ve seen them using thousands upon thousands of tear-gas canisters. We’ve had over 3,000 wounded. We’ve had over 38 killed. And, you know, we’ve held them off. People here are not willing to move, because what they want, they know now. They want an end to military government. They want it now.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For five straight days, nearly 120 continuous hours, thousands of protesters, most of them young men and women, did battle with security forces. Police used live ammunition, rubber bullets, shotgun cartridges, and an astonishing amount of tear gas. Protesters fought back mostly with rocks and sometimes Molotov cocktails. The number of dead and wounded quickly began to mount. Ghada Shahbandar is a member of the board of directors of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
GHADA SHAHBANDAR: Injuries, maimings and killings are caused by tear gas. The number one cause is tear gas, and then pellet bullets and rubber bullets. The pellet bullets and rubber bullets are—have been proven to be aimed at protesters’ faces and necks, and hence the large number of eye injuries. On Saturday, and upon my arrival to Tahrir Square, I personally overheard an officer instructing his soldiers to aim for protesters’ heads.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Despite the statements of many witnesses, doctors, and even the Health Ministry, the Supreme Council denied in a press conference that security forces had fired live ammunition or birdshot in their clashes with protesters. Dr. Mona Mina is a member of the Doctors’ Syndicate and a founding member of the Tahrir Doctors Group that has helped organize and provide medical care in the square.
DR. MONA MINA: [translated] I visited one of the wounded in the Red Crescent hospital. The injury was to the bone, and the x-ray clearly showed the bullet. I also saw other injuries that had entry and exit bullet wounds, and in the middle, the bone was broken. No injury of this type has an entry and exit wound with broken bone in the middle, unless a bullet went through. At the state morgue, I saw bodies that had been shot with live ammunition that had entry and exit bullet wounds. So, yes, of course, there was live ammunition fired. There were shotgun pellets and rubber pellets that hit people in the eye. We saw all of these things with our own eyes.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Dozens were killed in the crackdown, and more than 3,100 injured over the five days of clashes, a rate of over 620 injured per day. Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s revolution, had turned into a massive hospital. The wounded, the majority of them overwhelmed by tear gas and barely conscious, were carried from the front lines to field hospitals set up in and around the square on motorcycles. Protesters linked arms to create lanes for the bikes to speed through the crowds. Despite the near certainty of being injured or passing out from too much gas, protesters kept going forward to the front lines to confront police. The fighting centered on Muhammad Mahmoud, a street leading from Tahrir to the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. This is actor and activist, Khalid Abdalla.
KHALID ABDALLA: There’s an essential thing to understand about Muhammad Mahmoud, is that it is the frontier between Tahrir and the Ministry of Interior. You’re always going to have, no matter where you define it, an area that is a no man’s land in which it’s not clear: is this your territory, or is it my territory?
As they hit you, you are not going to give up. The more they kill us, the more we multiply. And that has always been the story of this revolution. So, obviously, the front lines have been—I mean, it’s funny. Tear gas, it’s almost like it has a natural kind of—what’s the word? You kind of develop immunity to it. Not immunity in terms of your lung, but you develop immunity of spirit. It’s made to break you. But what it does is gradually make you more furious to the point that there is nothing that will stop you.
And this revolution has always been about—about it having body. When you know that there are thousands upon thousands upon thousands behind you, you don’t stop. People fight for as long as they can. They die, they go to hospital, they lose their eyes, and there are others behind them. It’s a matter of—it’s how, kind of, consensus expresses itself as a movement. And essentially, your heart takes over your body. It takes over your mind. We’re fighting for things far bigger than this.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Each day, more and more people descended to Tahrir. What began as a protest of a few hundred had grown to many thousands. Ambulances waded through the crowd in what had become an almost surreal scene of chaos and bloodshed. Protesters called for a million-person gathering on Tuesday. And when the day came, the square saw one of the largest demonstrations since the January 25th revolution began. It had one clear call: an end to military rule.
That evening, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council, directly addressed the Egyptian people for the first time since assuming the position of de facto ruler of the country. He delivered only minor concessions and refused to answer the call of the protesters to hand over power. The speech had little effect, and the protest in Tahrir continued as strong as ever.
The next day, the clashes continued as fierce as ever. On Thursday, the army stepped in. Soldiers erected a large wall of concrete blocks in the middle of Muhammad Mahmoud Street to separate the two sides. The fighting in Cairo had stopped, but clashes in Alexandria and elsewhere continued, and the battle for Egypt’s future was far from over. On Friday, tens of thousands filled Tahrir for a massive demonstration. Feeder marches hit the streets across Cairo and headed to the square. Many of the protesters spoke out against the scheduled elections. Hany Nazim Mohamed Salama is a protester from northeast Cairo.
HANY NAZIM MOHAMED SALAMA: [translated] The elections are rejected completely, completely. Firstly, we can’t have elections with all that has happened. The police can’t secure the elections, and we have no confidence whatsoever in the military council to accept these elections under them. Any group that stands with the elections, that says yes to elections, is against the Egyptian revolution. They don’t care about the blood that has been spilled. Those who approve the elections sell our blood just to run after the seats in parliament.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Among those who have come under heavy criticism from the protesters is the Muslim Brotherhood. The longtime Islamist opposition group stands to gain a large number of seats in the parliamentary elections and has pushed heavily for the vote to go ahead as scheduled. The Brotherhood declined to join any of the demonstrations and went so far as to forbid its members from taking part.
KHALID ABDALLA: The Muslim Brotherhood clearly are interested in elections. Then, they have a political interest, which they are declaring now above—above the demands of this revolution to get rid of—to get rid of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. I feel very strongly that it is—I say, shame on them. Shame on their history. They, after all, are a movement that has been tortured and abused and beaten and killed for 60 years at the hands of this regime, this army regime that is still in power today, and at the last moment, they take an opportunistic decision to choose sham elections over the people of this country.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Instead of elections, many protesters have called for power to be handed over to some kind of civilian presidential council or a national salvation government that has full authority currently held by the military council. Rania Mohamed Fawzi is an accountant from Cairo.
RANIA MOHAMED FAWZI: [translated] We are ordinary Egyptians, the ones they say just stay at home. We are not staying at home. We’re right here, saying we want our rights, which are very simply a civilian presidential council that is formed from people that represent us, and that is agreed upon, but they must have full authority, not just someone like before, like Essam Sharaf’s government, just a secretary that just carries out what the staff wants. No, we’ve been silent for a long time. This time, we are not silent, and we will get all our rights. And this won’t be like the first time. They said Mubarak left, and we all went home. No, this time, we won’t go home until we get our rights.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: At the top the list to head a national salvation revolutionary government is Mohamed ElBaradei, a presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has declared his willingness for the role as long as he is given full powers. Protesters have also proposed other potential politicians to head the government alongside several young revolutionaries.
In the meantime, the Supreme Council announced its appointment of a new prime minister to replace Essam Sharaf, who had resigned along with the rest of the cabinet. Kamal Ganzouri was the man they chose, a 78-year-old closely tied to Mubarak’s regime. In response, protesters chose to extend their Tahrir sit-in to occupy the nearby street, housing the cabinet and the parliament. On Sunday morning, brief clashes with Central Security Forces near the cabinet sit-in left a 19-year-old protester dead, the latest martyr in a revolution that has been reignited.
KHALID ABDALLA: This country is in a moment of absolute clarity and awareness about where it stands, about its front—about the front lines of what it has to fight for, what it has to bring down, in order to build itself. I’m not saying that in one swift move everything will be—everything will be great. But right now, we have a crucial—right now you have millions of people pitted against the biggest institution in the country, and they are not afraid, and they are willing to die for it, and they are willing to fight for it. It may take some people more time to get to a point where they’re willing to stand in front of a tank and say, "Run over me," and that’s something—that’s an extraordinary moment for anyone to come to. But we saw that start on the 25th of February, when the army first came down to kick us out of this square, and the number that was there was very small. But right then, they said it is the people or the army, and people will win because they always do. You cannot enforce stability. If you try and enforce stability, the cracks will be volcanic, and they will melt you away.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For Democracy Now!, I’m Sharif Abdel Kouddous with Jacquie Soohen in Cairo, Egypt. Special thanks to the Mosireen video collective and to Pierre Sioufi.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif’s reporting from Egypt is made possible in part by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, one of the people responsible for the development of weapons-grade pepper spray, extremely critical of how police are using it now in the United States. Stay with us.