CAIRO – The soldiers shouted, “Raise your head high, you’re Egyptian.”
It was one of the most inspiring chants by young protesters during Egypt’s revolution, encapsulating the newfound pride of a people rising up after a lifetime of humiliation under authoritarian rule.
From the soldiers, it was a taunt.
They barked it over and over at an activist lying belly down on the ground, stripped to his boxers, his hands and right leg tied behind his back. Each time Ramy Issam obeyed, he said, a soldier would stomp his head back onto the marble of the courtyard in Cairo’s Egyptian Museum.
To the youth who led the protests and to a growing number of Egyptians, the secretive council of top generals that now rules the country is looking too much like the regime it replaced – authoritarian, ready to use brutal tactics and out of touch with the nation’s aspirations.
The military, which was greeted with cheers when it pushed out longtime president Hosni Mubarak in February, has proclaimed its embrace of the revolution and democratic elections later this year. But protesters have returned to Tahrir Square, holding a sit-in since July 8, to complain that the military has hijacked the transition and has been reluctant to purge members of the old regime.
Reported abuses add a darker undertone to those complaints. There have been multiple reports of torture of detainees. To an unprecedented extent, the army has also been bringing civilians before military courts, notorious for their swift rulings with little chance for defense. In five months, more than 10,000 civilians have been put on military trial, including protesters, activists and at least one journalist who wrote an article critical of the army, according to rights groups tracking the detentions.
“The revolution has been stolen by the military council,” said Issam, the long-haired “Singer of the Revolution” who is known for rousing the crowd in Tahrir Square with political tunes on his Spanish guitar. “We made the revolution and we gave it to the military council on a silver platter. But everyone must know that we have learned how to say ‘No.'”
Issam seemed close to tears as he visited the Egyptian Museum in early July for the first time since his detention and recounted his ordeal to an Associated Press reporter.
He was among dozens grabbed by soldiers who broke up a March 9 sit-in in Tahrir protesting the generals’ slowness in implementing the revolution’s post-Mubarak demands.
Issam and the others were dragged to the nearby museum, the treasure trove of pharaonic antiquities that the military used as an impromptu base at times during the uprising. There, Issam says, he was beaten by wooden sticks and iron rods and given electric shocks. His hair was cut off with broken glass.
After a public outcry over that day’s crackdown, the council promised to review reports of torture, but no results of a review have been made public. It also admitted that some detained women were forced to take humiliating “virginity tests,” and it said the practice would not be repeated.
Amid the beatings, Issam recalled the warning shouted at him by one of the officers:
“We will make you know who are the real masters of this country.”