On November 19, Ahmed Harara, a 31-year-old activist who lost his right eye during the uprising against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, lost his left eye while protesting the military junta that replaced him: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Blind, Harara has become a hero of the revolution—and a symbol of a fight that has evolved from eighteen heady days in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to a protracted struggle against Egypt’s central power structure, the backbone of its modern autocracy. “Our demand,” said Harara in a televised interview, “is that the military council leaves.”
One year after the fall of Mubarak, the force that was once praised as “the protector of the revolution” has seen a plummeting of popular legitimacy, with Egyptians angered by the SCAF’s impromptu, opaque decision-making, its increasingly brutal tactics and its apparent unwillingness to cede power. Since taking charge of the country, the SCAF has worked to ensure that in any government handover to a civilian authority, it will preserve its own political and economic autonomy and maintain its de facto status as a state within the state. In short: to stop governing Egypt and go back to simply ruling it.
The violence that led to the blinding of Harara was sparked in early November, when Deputy Prime Minister Ali El Selmi proposed a set of “constitutional principles” ahead of Egypt’s parliamentary elections. The Selmi Document, as it became known, gave the SCAF extraordinary powers to intervene in the constitution-writing process, which is tentatively scheduled for completion by May 15 (an impossibly short time, according to many observers). These include the authority to appoint eighty of 100 members of the constituent assembly charged with drafting it, the right to object to certain provisions and the power to appoint an entirely new assembly if a constitution is not drawn up within six months. It also stipulates that the military’s budget remain secret and gives the SCAF exclusive authority to approve any legislation on the army’s internal affairs.
The document caused an uproar, prompting the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by a wide range of parties and activists, to call for a massive protest in Tahrir Square. The demonstration, on November 18, marked a public break by the Muslim Brotherhood from the ruling generals it had thus far cozied up to—an important challenge to the SCAF. But its significance was eclipsed by what happened the next morning when the Central Security Forces, the notorious black-clad riot police used for years by Mubarak, stormed Tahrir to attack a few dozen protesters. Thousands of people descended on the square in solidarity. Downtown Cairo was transformed into a battle zone, the air saturated by a white fog of tear gas. At least forty-two people were killed and more than 3,000 wounded over five days of clashes.
The crackdown was one of the most violent episodes in a year that has seen what Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch describes as “new patterns of violations and an attempt to control the political space.” The military and security forces have engaged in vicious regular assaults on protesters, using live ammunition, rubber bullets, birdshot and astonishing amounts of tear gas. In the most shocking display, the military fired live ammunition into a protest of Coptic Christians and their supporters in October and drove armored personnel carriers at high speeds into the crowd. At least twenty-seven people were killed and about 300 wounded in the single bloodiest day in Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster.