Revolution returns to Tahrir Square

Tahrir Square has once again become a makeshift community of tents, field hospitals and wounded protesters. "We are exhausted but morale is high," says Omar Marsafy, 24, who has gunshot wounds to his legs, arms and head. Many have been sleeping there since Saturday 19 November, when the state security forces attacked the south-eastern side of the square with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The square hosts a mix of ages, genders, background and religious persuasions. "On the front line it's mostly young men from the poorer and more disaffected areas," explains Omar - although, he adds, not exclusively. This becomes abundantly clear when you visit the morgue and speak to bereaved families. The official body count is 23, and many news agencies are reporting 33.

The front line, next to the American University in Cairo library, is a constant battle for ground. The protesters face lines of the Egyptian Central Security Forces (CSF) and a handful of plain-clothed officers. "They shoot directly at the people, some aiming at our faces," says Ahmed Fathi, 23, a student. These fighters rarely leave the battlefield, Fathi explains - only if they are hurt.

There is a continuous stream of men on scooters and pick-up trucks bringing the injured back to the square. Women with bottles of vinegar and men with saline solution, anti-acid solution and eye drops to alleviate the effects of tear gas are scattered along Mahomed Mahmoud Street, helping protesters as they stagger from the attacks. Street children as young as six run through the centre of the fighting where, it is now confirmed, live ammunition has been used.

There are now more than seven makeshift medical centres on and around the square. Men and women link arms around these areas to give the doctors, who have been working 18-hour shifts, room to treat the wounded.

At approximately 5.30pm on Sunday 20 November, the army stormed Tahrir. I witnessed officers beating protesters. One activist told me: "They shouted, 'You deserve it!'" as they hit them. I saw a heap of bodies and at least one death at the hands of the army - a soldier dragged the corpse of a young man and left him on a pile of rubbish.

United demand

The presence of the army was an important development. Since the beginning, the resounding chants on the square have been "Down, down with the military regime" even though, aside from Sunday's attack, most of the battles have been with the Egyptian police, who are controlled by the national ministry of interior. When you talk to people on the square, there is one united demand: for a civilian-led government and the removal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has ruled since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February.

Why now? "It's accumulation and escalation of tension and violence between state and the people," says Salma Shukrallah, a journalist for Ahram Online.

"Like Mubarak, the SCAF has been creating enemies with everyone - with the workers, the Salafis, the Muslim Brotherhood and the protesters making social demands."

On 18 November, hundreds of thousands came to the square protesting against the military junta and their attempt to expand the army's powers. With one eye on the forthcoming elections, Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood were in full force on Friday, while liberal and revolutionary groups focused on the military trials for civilians and the detention of the internationally renowned blogger Alaa Abd el-Fattah and thousands like him. By the next morning only a few hundred remained. The forced clearing of that tiny sit-in by the CSF is what sparked the clashes.

“The SCAF is incapable of governing," says Ghada Shabender, of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. "This is a national crisis." The constitutional declaration, which in effect is the constitution until an assembly is appointed to write a new one, is vague and allows the SCAF final say over legislation. "We have a puppet government right now," Ghada says.

In addition, the supra-constitutional declaration that the SCAF is trying to push through would give the military powers over the new president. Many important political groupings, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, have rejected it.

There are also grass-roots grievances. I asked one boy, 15-year-old Mohammed Abdalla, who had a rubber bullet injury to his forehead, why he was on the square. "The revolution has not been fulfilled," he says. "The financial situation is worse than when Mubarak was in power."

While the fate of what people are calling the Second Revolution remains in the balance, the driving force behind it is clear. As a young field doctor, Ahmed Saber, tellsme: "I'm here for Egypt, for freedom, for our future, not just mine."

Bel Trew is based in Cairo

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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