On the evening of October 10, a funeral procession of more than 20,000 people marched down Ramses Street, a main thoroughfare in downtown Cairo, loudly calling for the end to military rule in Egypt. Chants of "Down with the Marshal" echoed in the night sky, in reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the de facto ruler of the country following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. On their shoulders they carried the coffins of several Coptic Christians killed a day earlier by the Egyptian army. Military police backed by plainclothes thugs had attacked a peaceful demonstration with live ammunition and by driving armored personnel carriers at high speeds into the crowd in a shocking display of wanton violence. In total, at least twenty-six people were killed and more than 300 wounded.
The incident was the bloodiest act of repression by the Egyptian army since it took the reins of power on February 11, and it pulled into sharp focus a struggle that has been steadily growing against the ruling military junta in post-Mubarak Egypt.
"It makes the battle easier when your enemy shows its real face," says Mona Seif, twenty-five, a rights activist and a founding member of the No to Military Trials of Civilians campaign. "The horrible part about it is that it gets more bloody, and the confrontation with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gets more real." During the eighteen-day uprising that ousted Mubarak, the army enjoyed widespread praise as "the protector of the revolution" and was applauded for not opening fire on protesters — a dubious accolade in and of itself. Chants of "The people, the army, one hand" were ubiquitous in Tahrir Square. In the days and weeks that followed, any criticism of the military generally, or the Supreme Council in particular, was widely denounced as heresy. But the afterglow has since faded away, in large part due to the military council's repressive policies, which have been met with heavy resistance by revolutionary forces in their ongoing struggle to overthrow the regime.
One of the most striking examples of the turning of the tide of public opinion is the grassroots campaign against the Supreme Council's widespread use of military trials. Over the past eight months, nearly 12,000 civilians have been tried in military courts — more than the total number during Mubarak's thirty-year reign. According to Human Rights Watch, military trials "do not protect basic due process rights and do not satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law."
When a small group of activists, led by Seif, first spoke out against the use of military trials in March, they were largely ignored. "We had nearly zero media coverage in the beginning. We were completely marginalized," Seif says. When they continued to press the issue, pursuing an online campaign against the use of military trials, they were vilified. "We were called traitors. They said we were trying to turn people against the army," says Seif. "And this was coming from a lot of the same people who were active participants in the revolution from the beginning."
The No to Military Trials group continued its work, meticulously documenting cases, collecting evidence, recording testimonies, assembling a group of volunteer lawyers to advocate for detainees, building a mailing list, distributing pamphlets, and posting videos online to spread awareness. Within a few months, they succeeded in catapulting the issue from the margins of the activist community to the forefront of the political sphere. The practice is now widely condemned in the mainstream media by all major political figures, parties, and civil society groups in the country. While the Supreme Council has not summarily ended the use of military trials, it has substantially cut back on the number of people referred to military courts and has instituted a much more structured and open legal proceeding in the face of mounting public pressure.
The use of military tribunals is just one of many policies deployed by the Supreme Council in its attempt to suppress dissent and exercise control during the transitional period. They have tortured detainees, extended and broadened the Emergency Law, intimidated and censored the press, and issued a ban on protests and strikes.
"I'm not disappointed because I didn't have high hopes for Mubarak's generals or the transitional government to start with," says Hossam El-Hamalawy, thirty-four, a prominent journalist, labor organizer, and activist with the Revolutionary Socialists. "I belong to those who, on the twelfth of February, urged Egyptians to continue with the revolution, not necessarily in Tahrir but actually to take Tahrir to the factories and university campuses. If we judge the revolution according to that standard, then you will see we are actually progressing, not regressing."In September, workers across multiple sectors of the economy began striking in massive numbers not seen in Egypt since the last few days of the eighteen-day uprising, when organized labor joined the revolution and dealt the decisive blow that toppled Mubarak from power. Workers reinstated their demands for economic justice, including higher wages, job security, improved working conditions, and the removal of corrupt officials and remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
In defiance of the anti-strike law, doctors staged sit-ins at hospitals, transit workers largely paralyzed Cairo's bus fleet, air traffic controllers temporarily shut down Cairo International Airport, university professors and students staged campus occupations, and schoolteachers closed down tens of thousands of schools — the first collective action by Egypt's educators since 1951.