Monday, February 6, 2012

Egypt: From camel to tear gas warring

February 2012: Battling tear gas
February 2011: Confronting camels
With protests against the military rulers continuing in central Cairo, Port Said, Suez, Alexandria and other parts of Egypt, I am reminded of a guest post at Mich Café in February 2011 about “The Camel versus Facebook” in Egypt. It focused on the faceoff in Tahrir Square between supporters and opponents of former president Hosni Mubarak. A year since, tear gas has replaced the camel.

Clashes in many Egyptian cities -- between police and the security services commanded by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on the one hand and demonstrators on the other -- have not subsided since 79 football fans were killed and several hundreds more injured in Port Said on February 1, 2012.

The confrontations erupted as the dust was still settling on the deadly pitch invasion in Port Said Stadium. There, supporters of local team al-Masry set on the visiting al-Ahly team and fans after al-Masry had unexpectedly won the match 3-1.

Port Said Stadium, February 1, 2012 (Photo by Reuters)
Police react at Port Said Stadium (Photo by Reuters)
With most deaths believed to be al-Ahly followers, hardcore fans known as “ultras” accused police and military authorities of planning the killings because they had stood up to them during last year’s revolution.

The question raised then – “Where is Egypt heading?” – is just as relevant today.

When Mubarak was ousted 18 days into the January 25, 2011 uprising and his powers shifted to SCAF, my sole observation online was: “How can military rule be compatible with democracy?” The question is just as fitting as well.

Camels have now been replaced by tear gas to fight off demonstrators in cities that have been sharing in the “Occupy” movement.

Wikipedia photo
At the end of last year, sadly “occupy” and “tear gas” were the words most commonly used and searched for on the Internet. The media analysis company Global Language Monitor lists “Occupy” in the top 10 list.

It is no surprise the use of CS in war is outlawed under the terms of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, signed by most nations in 1993 with all but five other countries signing between 1994 through 1997.

Only five states have not signed the Convention and are therefore unhindered by restrictions on the use of CS gas. They are: Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Syria.

Use of pepper spray too is also banned in wartime under Article I.5 of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It forbids the use in warfare of all riot control agents, whether lethal or less-than-lethal.

Having lived through the Lebanese civil war and covered various turbulent zones during my career as a journalist, I was fortunate not to be exposed to these gases. Wars, in the pre-Internet days had a different feel, especially as it took days sometimes for news of to travel and reach the world at large.

With enough to follow in our region, I hadn’t paid much attention to the Occupy protest movement directed against economic and social inequality. What started in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy San Francisco last September had by the end of 2011 taken place and/or is still taking place in over 95 cities across 82 countries and over 600 communities in the US, according to Wikipedia.

The Occupy movement has hit closer to home with the recent events in Cairo and Port Said where the use of tear gas and pepper spray is common. CS gas, an aerosol of a volatile solvent, is also being used to control Occupy participants and demonstrators in Egypt, alongside tear gas and pepper spray.

Broken promises

Egypt's military rulers have failed to live up to their promises to uphold human rights. Instead, they have been responsible for a catalog of abuses that sometimes exceeds Mubarak’s appalling record, Amnesty International said in a new report released last November 21.

In Broken Promises: Egypt's Military Rulers Erode Human Rights, Amnesty documents a woeful performance on human rights by SCAF.

"By using military courts to try thousands of civilians, cracking down on peaceful protest and expanding the remit of Mubarak's Emergency Law, the SCAF has continued the tradition of repressive rule, which the January 25 demonstrators fought so hard to get rid of," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Acting Director.

"Those who have challenged or criticized the military council -- like demonstrators, journalists, bloggers, striking workers -- have been ruthlessly suppressed, in an attempt at silencing their voices.”

Amnesty said that by August, the SCAF admitted military courts had tried some 12,000 civilians across the country. At least 13 were sentenced to death.

Dealing with tear gas

Tear gas irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth, and lungs. A chemical reaction to the sulfhydryl group of enzymes may cause the irritation. The results of exposure are coughing, sneezing, and tearing. Tear gas usually is nonlethal, but some agents are toxic.

One of many tear gas canisters from the streets in Cairo 
Exposure to tear gas gives: stinging and burning of the eyes, nose, mouth, and skin; excessive tearing; blurred vision; runny nose; salivation (drooling); exposed tissue may develop a rash and a chemical burn; coughing and difficulty breathing, including a feeling of choking; disorientation and confusion, which may lead to panic; and intense anger.

The best defense against tear gas is a gas mask, but if one is not on hand there are other steps you can take to lessen harm: You can soak a bandana or paper towel in lemon juice or cider vinegar and store it in a plastic bag. You can breathe through the acidified cloth for several minutes, which should give you enough time to get away.

Fleeing tear gas in Cairo (Photo by AP)
Goggles are a great defensive gear. You can use tight-fitting swim goggles.

Don't wear contacts anywhere you might face tear gas. If you are wearing contact lenses, immediately remove them. Your contacts are a loss as is anything else you can't wash.

You can wear your clothes again after washing them, but wash them separately that first time.

If you don't have goggles or a mask, you can breathe the air inside your shirt, since there is less air circulation and therefore a lower concentration of the gas, but that is counterproductive once the fabric becomes drenched.

First aid for eyes is to flush them with sterile saline or water until the stinging starts to subside. Exposed skin should be washed with soap and water. Breathing difficulties are treated by administering oxygen and occasionally by medications used to treat asthma. Medicated bandages can be applied on burns.

Anonymous Press has also put out a guide for “Defending against tear gas” that might help.

Stay safe!