They have a Gun in One Hand and the Media in the Other: The Rise of Anti-Militarist Activism under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces

By Amy Austin Holmes, American University in Cairo

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “From Mobilization to Counter-Revolution: The Arab Spring in Comparative Perspective,” held on May 3-4, 2016.

Before anyone had ever heard of Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, secular activists in Egypt began organizing to oppose the junta that he was the most junior member of: the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Field Marshall Tantawi, who had been Hosni Mubarak’s Minister of Defense, headed the military council and was its most public figure, while Sisi was still relatively unknown. The SCAF ruled Egypt for almost a year and a half. This interregnum – after Mubarak stepped down and before Mohamed Morsi was elected – was often referred to at the time as a transition period. From today’s vantage point, it may appear less as a transition than as a prelude. Given the current resurgence of the military which has taken place since Sisi’s election to president, it may be useful to recall this critical period. In this short memo I argue that a new form of contentious politics emerged in Egypt during this time: the rise of anti-militarist opposition.

In a forthcoming book manuscript I analyze the three waves of anti-government mobilization in Egypt against Mubarak, the military council, and Morsi. What I refer to as the second wave of the Egyptian revolution began when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power on February 11, 2011. It then ended on June 30, 2012, when the generals handed over (some) power to Morsi. The second wave of mobilization against the SCAF was not aiming to topple a single person, but attempted to erode the entrenched power of the armed forces as an institution. In chapter three of my book manuscript I chart the growth of groups that played an avant-garde role in challenging the authority of the Egyptian military including Mosireen, Kazeboon, No Military Trials for Civilians, the campaign to end virginity tests, as well as activist groups that existed prior to the uprising against Mubarak such as April 6 and the Revolutionary Socialists. In this short memo I will highlight just two of these groups: No Military Trials and Askar Kazeboon.

No Military Trials for Civilians

While many observers and analysts declared that the revolution was ‘over’ when Mubarak relinquished power, in fact large street protests continued almost uninterrupted in the following weeks and months.[1] On February 25, 2011, two weeks after Mubarak was ousted, a demonstration was held on Tahrir called the “Friday of Victory.” Demands included calling for Ahmed Shafik to step down, who Mubarak had hastily appointed Prime Minister just weeks earlier during the uprising. At night, the protest on Tahrir was attacked by army soldiers. One person provides a vivid description of these events.

I returned to Tahrir on the 25th of February, the Friday of Victory. Of course none of our demands had been met and we did not want Ahmed Shafik. At 2am the army attacked us. About 300 men carrying sticks, batons and electrics beat us for absolutely no reason. (…) They handcuffed me behind my back, all the time swearing at us and shouting that Mubarak is and continues to be the president. The metal wire was cutting into my wrists and when I complained they beat me even more. The commando officer stepped on my back with his boots, kicked my head and for seconds stood on my neck and I felt I will die. He shouted: “[Y]ou want Mubarak to leave. He will remain despite all of you.”[2]

Most of the people who were arrested on that day were later released. Amr Beheirry, however, was not. After a few of the other protesters inquired as to his whereabouts, they realized that he was being held in prison and subjected to a military trial although he was a civilian who had not broken any law. They decided to begin a campaign to demand the release of Amr, but soon realized that this was not an isolated incident. They learned of more and more civilians who were being tried in military courts, but no one knew the exact numbers. At first they thought there may be dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. The authorities refused to release any information. The campaign to release Amr turned into a campaign against military trials. They became the first anti-military group in post-Mubarak Egypt.

After months of campaigning, the SCAF finally admitted that over 12,000 civilians were being tried in military courts, more than the number who had been tried in military tribunals during the entire period of Mubarak’s rule. Activists believe the number may have been even much higher. This means that they had no lawyers, there was no due process, and no pretense of a fair trial. Some of the “court cases” were not even conducted in a courtroom, but instead the kitchen of the Haikstep military prison.

The group began approaching presidential candidates already in March 2011, hoping that someone would be willing to make a public statement criticizing military trials of civilians. They found no takers. It was not until May 7 that Hisham Bastawisy, a judge and vice president of the Court of Cassation — in addition to being nominated by the Tagammu Party as a presidential candidate — agreed to go on record with a statement. Even Mohamed El Baradei, one of the most prominent presidential contenders, and considered by many to be a liberal, still refused to make a statement as the issue was still highly controversial.

In July 2011, when Tahrir was occupied for three weeks, the longest occupation since the uprising that ousted Mubarak, the main demand of the sit-in was to end military trials of civilians. The yellow and black logo identifying the group spread both online and as graffiti on the walls throughout Cairo and other cities.

By September 2011, the group had created a video of seven presidential candidates all with stated opposition against military trials of civilians, including: Amr Moussa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, Ayman Noor, Hisham Bastawisy, Hazem Abou Ismail, Hamdeen Sabahhi, and Bouthaina Kamel._ Within the span of just a few months, this small group of activists had managed to change the political discourse around the issue of military trials from one of absolute silence to a situation in which presidential candidates from across the political spectrum (liberals, leftists, former regime figures, moderate Islamists, and Salafis) openly stated their opposition to military trials of civilians. I asked a member of the group how they managed this — and if the civilian judiciary in Egypt could be used to fight the military judicial system, and if not, what could be done to help the tens of thousands of civilians, many of them young people, who faced military tribunals. She said: “Nothing legal can help these kids. The pressure is what made it possible.”[3]

Askar Kazeboon

Kazeboon was formed in the wake of the five day uprising in November 2011 known as the Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud and the clashes in December in front of the cabinet building. Of the many cases of violence and abuse of power that occurred under the SCAF, one event in particular triggered outrage across Egypt and even internationally. A woman wearing a long black hijab was dragged across Tahrir by several soldiers in broad daylight. Her body was limp and the abaya was either ripped or somehow opened, exposing the upper half of her body. One soldier raised his leg to stomp on her chest. Captured on video, the image of this unknown woman became an iconic symbol of how the revolution was literally being crushed under the boots of security forces.

The following day, on December 18, Tahrir newspaper featured a front-page headline reading “Kazeboon” or liars next to an image of the “blue bra woman.” After this, Adel Omareh, a member of SCAF, held a press conference and insisted, despite the fact that the image had gone viral: “The armed forces do not have any procedures involving the use of violence.”_ Omarah went on to complain about the burdens that the army had to shoulder “while having to endure a lot of stress and friction with the public.”

Kazeboon was formed in order to document the fact that the SCAF were lying about their use of violence. They named their group “Askar Kazeboon” which means “the generals are liars.” In order to prove that the generals were deceiving the public and spreading false information, Kazeboon would use footage from official SCAF communiqués or from press conferences and juxtapose the claims they were making, for example about how soldiers never used violence against protesters, with images showing soldiers using violence. They would then screen these short videos in public places, by projecting the videos onto the side of buildings.

Kazeboon grew out of the popular neighborhood committees that were formed during the uprising against Mubarak. However, Kazeboon preferred to remain a loose network, “hard to pin down” or “kids with a projector” as some have described the group. According to one Kazeboon activist they hoped to take Tahrir outside of Tahrir — in other words to decentralize the protests. The idea took off like wildfire: within a matter of weeks screenings were done in Alexandria, Mansoura, Assiut, Aswan, Qalubeya, Suez, and elsewhere.

One of Kazeboon’s most high-profile screenings took place on the first anniversary of the uprising, in January 2012, when they projected their videos onto the outside of the state television building known as Maspero. In so doing they were publicizing everything the state media was trying to conceal.


How do we explain the emergence of these new anti-militarist activist groups? While a more detailed analysis of these groups is outside the scope of this short memo, their emergence should be seen in direct relation to specific events and actions undertaken by the SCAF. The practice of trying civilians in military tribunals led to the No Military Trials group. The practice of conducting forced virginity tests led to the campaign to stop virginity tests. The pro-SCAF state media led to the creation of Mosireen, a collective of media activists, who produced videos that challenged the official narrative. The practice of committing human rights violations in broad daylight and then lying about them later led to the creation of Kazeboon that was created with the sole purpose of exposing the lies of those in power. The military engendered its own anti-militarist opposition.

Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo.

[1] In an earlier publication I analyzed the 2011 uprising, and endeavored to explain when and how the business elite, the military, and United States either withdrew their support from Mubarak or rather continued to support him, as well as how the repertoire of protest tactics changed over the course of the 18-day uprising. “There are Weeks when Decades Happen: Structure and Strategy in the Egyptian Revolution” Mobilization, 17(4), December 2012, p 391-410. My forthcoming book manuscript adopts a similar approach to explaining the waves of mobilization against the SCAF and against Mohammed Morsi.

[2] “Diaries of a Revolution under Military Rule: Excerpts from 2011 Report,” El-Nadeem Center for the treatment and rehabilitation of victims of violence and torture.

[3] Interview with a member of the No Military Trials group on February 19, 2012 in Cairo

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