At the end of 2011, the horrendous violence of the Egyptian military police, which is routinely carried out off camera in the privacy of dark, filthy cells in the high-security prison of Tora, moved into the highly visible, public Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo. It was inevitable. Thousands of Egyptian youth are infuriated at the lack of any economic and social change and the continued imprisonment and torture of activists.
The ferocity of the violence is stomach-churning. Watching the video of uniformed police, in full body armor, wielding long, black metal rods with handles like swords, storming towards young, unarmed protesters wearing blue jeans, T-shirts and hoodies evokes sheer terror. The terror gives way to utter shock when the police, like a pack of jackals on steroids, encircle, and, in a flurry of up-and-down motions, strike defenseless protesters over and over and over again. I counted as one man sustained 21 body blows, numerous jackbooted kicks to the face and head which left him him comatose on the street.
The ancient Egyptians believed that jackals were the gods of the underworld and that the animals' howls were haunting songs of the dead. The military police charging into Tahrir Square, burning tents, beating peacefully assembled men and women, and charging down Mohamed Mahmoud Street firing bullets and tear gas canisters at adolescents' eyes and heads are 21st-century jackals whose helmets are modern-day Anubis masks. (Anubis is the Egyptian god of mummification.) They are animals, not gods, who run amok in the real world and relish inflicting grave injuries and death on human beings.
These brutal assaults are deliberately executed to cause massive brain trauma to render people unconscious. The beatings continue even as the victims lie prone and motionless. Police stationed on roofs of buildings rained down heavy objects that targeted protesters' heads. Clouds of toxic tear gas caused dizziness, paralysis and fainting. The jackals use taser weapons to subdue their victims by delivering an electrical shock that is excruciatingly painful and incapacitating. Some of the survivors of these attacks will suffer traumatic brain injuries and will be permanently disabled.
The sadism and misogyny of the jackals was taken to a new level when they caught a young woman, dragged her by the hair, stripped off her abaya and shirt in an act of sexual degradation, stomped on her breast, and then beat her into a state of unconsciousness. The video and photos of the assault went viral and enraged Egyptians. There are few women who participate in these street battles, and they're singled out for sexual violence. Females who were detained at earlier protests in Cairo were subjected to “virginity tests.” In an important victory, an Egyptian court recently ruled that forced “virginity tests” are illegal. Women who fight alongside men are viewed as whores and prostitutes – fair game for rape and sexual assault by military police, mukhabarat (the secret police) and prison guards. It takes a fierce courage for women to join the struggle in the streets knowing that a double standard of sexual violence awaits them if detained. A few days after the savage assault on the woman whose breast was stomped on (who became known as the “blue bra woman”), thousands of women and men marched through the streets of Cairo to denounce the systematic violence against women and to call for the end of military rule. It was one of the largest demonstrations for women's rights in Egypt in decades.
The police brutality in Cairo is eerily similar to the violence in South Africa under apartheid and against African-Americans during the great civil rights battles in the American South. In the black townships of Soweto and Alexandria, security forces shot and tear-gassed unarmed protesters, including children. They used 16-inch whips called sjamboks made of hippopotamus hide. The impact of the sjambok was devastating. One lash from the whip could strip the skin off of the body and left bloody welts and bruises.
Black protesters in the southern US cities of Birmingham and Selma were attacked and bitten by police dogs, tear-gassed, bludgeoned with wooden batons and fired on by high pressure water jets from hoses so powerful they could rip bark from trees.
It is the youth of Egypt who are taking a beating and leading the rebellion in the streets surrounding Tahrir Square. That's not surprising.
Young Egyptians experience oppression in terrible ways. Their voices and views about society are ignored and discounted in mainstream political discourse. Millions are undereducated and functionally illiterate, with few job skills. The youth unemployment rate is 25 percent, and even the college-educated can't find employment.
Nearly half of Egyptians live under or just above the poverty line, and $2 a day isn't enough to feed growing, young bodies. Chronic hunger humiliates Egyptians who live in one of the richest, most modern countries in the Middle East.
Millions of curious young people yearn to take part in the technological, social media and music revolutions but can't afford smartphones and the latest music software, laptop computers or Internet access.
Sex education and contraception isn't available in schools, leaving adolescents sexually uninformed and vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. Abortion is illegal. A combination of strict sexual norms, religion and sexism don't allow young men and women to freely explore their sexuality and form relationships based on equality and mutual respect. Lesbian and gay youth have no rights, and homosexuality, while not technically illegal, is in the closet and met with hostility and punishment if expressed openly. At every turn, the lives of young Egyptians are suffocated and sacrificed.
The youth in Egypt believe they have a grim future as long as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is in power. They're right, and that's why they're willing to risk death in order to live real change in their lifetime. Waiting another 30 years isn't an option. Young people bring an amazing creativity, imagination, determination, energy and urgency to politics that adults, often beaten down by decades of defeats and betrayals, no longer possess. When journalists bother to ask young Egyptians what they're fighting for, they invariably answer, “Freedom,” and, “Social justice.” The actions of young people in any country is a barometer which reveals the state of that society from top to bottom.
But the youth rebellions in the Arab streets for freedom and social justice that vent pent-up rage and frustration cannot by themselves rid the country of the SCAF or end profound economic inequality. Their struggle in the streets has to be linked to strikes and workplace occupations by Egyptian workers in the textile mills, sugar factories, schools, hospitals, ports and tax-collection offices. That is where the power lies in Egypt to disrupt and stop the flow of superprofits to Mubarak's homicidal military rulers, who own large chunks of the economy. Taking away the riches from this tiny minority has more power to fundamentally transform the country than a million rocks hurled at police.
There are important examples that illustrate the necessity of a youth activist-labor partnership. The students and marginalized youth who organized the Soweto uprising in South Africa needed the economic power of the diamond and gold miners, as well as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to bring the apartheid state down. In the United States, black students who sat in at lunch counters and unemployed youth who rioted in ghettos needed the Montgomery bus boycott, led by women domestic workers, and the strike of sanitation workers in Memphis to end Jim Crow segregation.
That kind of combined power can bring the vicious jackals of Egypt down.