Egyptians have witnessed many extraordinary protests in the months since the revolution began on 25 January.
Yet the demonstration that took place on Friday of last week marked a new stage in the deepening of the revolution and the crisis it is creating in the state.
Cairo’s Tahrir Square was packed again with a heaving crowd hundreds of thousands strong. The sheer numbers of demonstrators was significant—but more so was the presence of 51 junior army officers who were at the heart of the protest.
The demonstration was called under the banner “Friday of Cleansing”. It demanded the speeding up of the prosecution of key figures from ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s regime.
It rang with a new variation of the chant, “The people want the downfall of the regime”, calling for the overthrow of military leader Marshal Tantawi and the Supreme Military Council.
The officers represented various networks of dissidents—some have been organising on Facebook for the past month.
Their presence showed that the army is not immune from the immense pressure of the mass movement.
The officers addressed the crowd and led the chants. A group of them joined the protest camp that was set up in an attempt to hold the square after the main demonstration.
One of the young officers read out a statement on behalf of “the honourable officers”.
It called for the dissolution of the Supreme Military Council and its replacement by a civilian presidential council.
This would include no more than a single military member.
Other demands included the resignation of Marshal Tantawi, the minister of defence and military production, and
prosecutions of those responsible for killing and injuring protesters during the uprising.
Other officers gave impassioned interviews explaining their decision to challenge military discipline and risk arrest or even death to join the protesters.
“We are not here for personal or sectional interests,” explained Muhammad Mahmud Ahmad al-Hifni, a first lieutenant.
“I came to reassure people that I’m one of them.
“I was born in this country and I want to die here. I want to say to people that it is the army that protects the people, and the people who protect the army.
“I’m aware of the dangers. I want to say to every officer in the army, ‘You’re not less than me, you are honourable too. Stand up. Enough of fear and silence. Say what you think’.
“We all want one thing—a life with social justice.”
The sudden appearance of collective, organised dissent among the junior ranks of the army provoked a predictably brutal response from the military leadership.
A coordinated attack on the protest camp in the early hours of Saturday saw dozens injured and an unknown number killed.
Troops and security forces used live ammunition, clubs and tear gas as they swept into the crowd, snatching some of the officers.
Over 40 civilians have been arrested and referred to military tribunals on charges of breaking the curfew and anti-protest laws.
The army is now faced with a dilemma. If it doesn’t punish the rebel officers it will encourage more challenges. If it administers harsh sentences it could provoke mass protests.
These events show that the momentum of the revolution continues to deepen throughout Egyptian society.