The above photo shows Egyptian army soldiers beating a young woman in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Saturday, the second straight day of clashes with protesters that began on Friday and continued overnight. There’s no reason to believe that there was anything special about this woman or even about the way that soldiers treated her. Members of the army, once beloved by Egypt’s activists for standing by their side during the revolution in February, have sent hundreds of men and women to the hospital over the last 48 hours and have killed at least 10, some with live ammunition fired into crowds.
But there is something especially barbaric about this photo. The taboo of violence against unarmed women is unusually strong in the Arab world. But to watch three soldiers beat a defenseless woman with batons, their fists, and for one extraordinarily cruel soldier with his boot, is not even the most provocative part. For these men to pull her black abaya above her head and expose her midriff and chest is, for Egypt, a profound and sexually charged humiliation.
The Egyptian military, the strongest and most powerful institution in the country and perhaps the Arab world, has taken a dramatic and dark turn since winning power earlier this year. Though it initially safeguarded the revolution in February by protecting protesters from President Hosni Mubarak’s state security forces, it has gradually (if clumsily) consolidated power since his fall, declaring that it will retain independence from and control over any democratically elected government. As protests against the military have grown, the generals have abandoned their earlier pledges to support the people and refrain from violence against civilians. The SCAF — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a panel of top military leaders — increasingly looks like Egypt’s new dictator. Its troops, now openly attacking civilians, are unlikely to deescalate their war against democratic activism.
A few months ago some people were getting giddy over revolts in the Arab world. They wanted us to join them in supporting these revolts. Some of us were less than enthusiastic.
History teaches us is that those who start revolutions are often not the same ones who finish them, and brutal dictatorships are rarely replaced by peaceful democracies. And when you upset an apple cart the apples don’t always roll the way you expect.
Among the people who were getting giddy over revolts in the Arab world were the Occupiers. I hope they are paying attention but I doubt it. They are too full of themselves to let reality intrude.