When the Egyptian army entered the streets of Cairo at the peak of the protests in Tahrir Square in January, its members were welcomed as heroes. When they pledged not to fire on the demonstrators, people in the streets shouted, “The army and the people are one!” It has taken only a matter of weeks for that promise to come undone.
I arrived in Cairo on Sunday afternoon. Almost as soon as I arrived, I began to hear reports of the military torturing demonstrators from Tahrir Square. In meetings with half a dozen activists and demonstrators on Monday, people kept referring to “the events of Wednesday night” and “what happened at the museum.” For many who risked everything to oust a dictator and set Egypt on a democratic course, Wednesday, March 9th, has become a turning point: the moment when it became unambiguously clear that the Egyptian military was not the guardian of the revolution they hoped it would be.
Samira Ibrahim Mohamed is a 25-year-old woman from Upper Egypt. She came from her home more than eight hours away in January to join in the protests in Tahrir Square. Like many others, she has stayed in Cairo, occasionally returning to camp out in the square as a reminder of the democratic promises that the military and remnants of the old regime have made. She was in the square on the afternoon of March 9 when members of the army and men in plainclothes attacked the demonstrators, arbitrarily arresting people on sight. Samira was one of the protesters who was dragged away from Tahrir that afternoon.
Soldiers beat and kicked her. They tore her headscarf from her. And then, in what was as bizarre as it was shocking, they took her and other peaceful demonstrators to the famed Egyptian museum on the north side of the square — to be tortured.
Samira was handcuffed to a wall in the museum complex. For nearly seven hours — almost every five minutes, she said — Samira was electrocuted with a stun gun. Her torturers would sometimes splash water on her and others to make the shocks more painful. The electrical jolts were applied to her legs, shoulders and stomach. She pleaded with the soldier to stop. Repeating what the demonstrators had chanted in Tahrir Square, she said, “I begged them. I said, ‘You are my brothers. The army and the people are one.’” Her tormentor replied, “No, the military is above the nation. And you deserve this.”
At around 11 p.m., Samira and others were moved to one of the main military prisons. She would remain there for three more days. Over those days, the abuse, insults and intimidation continued. They spit on her. All of her belongings were stolen. She was given kerosene-soaked bread for food. But the most humiliating moment was when they first brought her into the prison. She and 10 other women arrested in the square were stripped and forcibly examined to determine whether they were virgins. She had been told that any woman found not to be a virgin would have prostitution added to her charges.
When they led her into the room where she would suffer this indignity, she paused for a moment. Behind the military man waiting for her, she noticed a photograph. It was a portrait of Hosni Mubarak. She asked the soldier, “Why do you keep that up there?”
He replied, “Because we like him.”
From the beginning, there was reason to suspect that the Egyptian military — the true force behind the country’s modern dictatorship — was hardly a credible institution to steer Egypt on a democratic path. It’s now amply clear. Today U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Cairo to encourage the country’s military custodians to continue on a democratic path. While she is at it, she should ask the generals to explain what happened that night at the museum.