On the anniversary of Egypt's historic protests, a 49-year-old mother tries to hold the military accountable—one body at a time
Wall Street Journal Jan. 21, 2012
As Egypt's tumultuous uprising has deteriorated over the last year, Ghada Shahbender, a former soccer mom, has adopted a grim vocation.
"It's hospital after hospital, morgue after morgue," the divorced mother of four told me. "I started back in February, about the time that the camel drivers attacked us in Tahrir Square. I was trying to get a body count, but I was chased out. The government didn't want us to know how many people really died."
As clashes between protesters and security forces escalated in the fall, Ms. Shahbender and other volunteers learned to reach coroners quickly to prevent them from lying on death certificates under government pressure.
"There's often an awful battle over writing a report about what really happened—like when a body arrives with a gunshot wound in the forehead and a coroner tries to make it a car accident," said Ms. Shahbender, a secular voter (and former screenwriter) who sees the country's Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) as the key remaining obstacle to democracy.
On Jan. 25, Egypt marks the one-year anniversary of epic protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in a mere 18 days. The Arab world's most populous country has just wrapped up the freest election in its 5,000-year history. By June, a committee from the new parliament is supposed to write a constitution, and then Egypt will elect a president.
Yet across teeming Cairo, there's a sense now that the revolution has only begun—and that the last body has yet to be counted. Egyptians increasingly frame the next five months as a third phase of their rebellion. The first was the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. The second played out in sporadic clashes from October to December. The third phase will be shaped as elected officials struggle to dismantle Egypt's military empire. Many here fear it could take years—and prove harder than ousting Mr. Mubarak.
Underneath its autocratic surface, modern Egypt was effectively a military state. Since the Free Officers Movement toppled the monarchy in 1952, all of the country's presidents have been military men. The SCAF, which holds power now, abandoned Mr. Mubarak partly because it wanted another general, not Mr. Mubarak's son, to succeed him, Egyptian analysts contend.
The military has long influenced everything from legislation to the media and foreign policy. And, according to reports, it may control up to 30% of the economy, including vast tracts of land.
The generals want four controversial guarantees before ceding power, according to Amr Hamzawy, who won a parliamentary seat as an independent. They seek immunity from prosecution for human rights violations, including hundreds of deaths, since taking over on Feb. 11 last year. They want to preserve their political leverage, including an effective veto over legislation. They want to retain their business interests. And they seek control over the military budget, which under Mr. Mubarak was kept secret even from parliament.
"These are not issues that will be decided once and for all in June," Mr. Hamzawy said. "Does that mean they will not hand over power? It means they will hand it over constitutionally and on paper. And the new parliament will draft limits and checks and balances that then will take time to enact."
"I don't know whether we will be successful," he added.
Meantime, the disparate array of protesters is demanding that SCAF allow elected civilians to rule Egypt for the first time. At Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the yearlong uprising, graffiti that once carried anti-Mubarak slogans now target the generals. "Death to the rule of the military," declares one.
Tensions between protesters and SCAF have deepened particularly since a four-day crackdown in December killed dozens more activists. Over the past year, according to Human Rights Watch, more than 12,000 civilians have been tried by military courts, some simply for insulting the military.
Rival anniversary commemorations reflect the rising tensions. Protesters have called for massive demonstrations against SCAF on Jan. 25. SCAF responded by calling on Egyptians to turn out to honor the military's role in ousting Mr. Mubarak. The Islamist parties, on the eve of gaining power after winning almost 70% of the seats in the new parliament, want to avoid new turmoil, but they are also savvy about street sentiment. They have called on the public to turn out to celebrate "martyrs" who died in the uprising.
Whether or not the competing passions of Jan. 25 spark confrontations, Ms. Shahbender and her daughter Nazly Hussein, 28, are preparing to count more bodies. Ms. Hussein takes a video camera along to document death and injuries for the new group Mosireen, Arabic for "the determined," which posts them on the Web.
"I've been to the morgues so many times I lost count," Ms. Shahbender said. The hardest deaths to document, she said, were the bodies crushed by military vehicles.
Over the past year, Ms. Shahbender, 49, whose latest film was abruptly deferred after the uprising, has become a leading activist—a reflection of the fact that Egypt's protest leaders are not just young people. She smuggled supplies into Tahrir Square, created networks of activists and became a popular voice on Twitter. During the recent elections, she exposed thousands of discarded ballots in a Cairo district and forced a revote.
"This can't all have been for nothing," she told me while navigating Cairo's chaotic traffic en route to an open-air rally for Kazeboon, a group formed last month to counter the military's propaganda against the protesters. (Kazeboon means "liars.") On a frigid night, the demonstration packed Union Square with protesters to honor the "Eyes of Tahrir," the more than 1,500 activists who lost an eye from beatings or from pellet guns, according to human rights activists and doctors.
Among them was Ahmed Harara, a young dentist who lost an eye on Jan. 28 last year, the day protesters pushed security forces from Lovers' Bridge and occupied Tahrir Square. He lost his other eye during protests on Nov. 19. Ms. Shahbender is documenting his and other cases for the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights. At the rally, an ophthalmologist showed gruesome slides of bloodied corneas on a screen made from sheets.
Bassem Youssef is a cardiac surgeon who tended to the injured at a makeshift clinic at Tahrir Square during the uprising's first phase. He has gained fame since March as the Jon Stewart of Egypt after he launched a satirical news show. Mr. Youssef has now started ridiculing SCAF.
"It's not just how many tanks they own," he reflected after a recent taping. "How do you build a highway here? You go to the military as it has the resources. So the idea of turning over control—I just don't see it happening. After Mubarak stepped down, he went on trial. Will the generals go on trial? I don't think so." He started the show, he said, to expose "the hypocrisy and lying."
After a year of unrest, Ms. Shahbender says that she is inured to fear. "I can't get over the sight of the one-eyed and the blind. The more I look at the paraplegics who were shot in the back, the more I want justice. The dead actually may be in a better place," she said. "I can only pray that these generals pay the prices of these grievances with their own health."
—Ms. Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, is the author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion across the Islamic World."