The Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud Street: Conspiracies

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Site of the Clashes

Note: Yesterday and today Tahrir Square witnessed new violence between demonstrators and the military police. Right before the start of elections, however, demonstrators were engaged in a pitched battle with the regular police. I wrote about it here, but did not delve into the surrounding issues, which were far to numerous and complicated. In this essay I do, aided by the testimony of a participant, which will be provided tomorrow in part two. As for any light shed on the larger question by today’s confrontations, well, that may still need additional reflection. May God aid Egypt.

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One of the most confusing aspects of the recent clashes in Tahrir Square is why they happened at all. The basic story, told at length here, is that a small group of sit-in protestors were dispersed violently by police, and as word spread more and more protestors joined their ranks. Eventually several thousand, and then tens of thousands, re-converged in Tahrir, provoking another political crisis which eventually led to the resignation of the government and a promise to hold presidential elections by the end of June 2012. This is not what the protestors were demanding; they wanted no less than the return of the military to its barracks and the immediate transfer of governance to a civilian council. Yet this basic description obscures the fact that over forty people died during these few days of clashes, which is the most likely reason why there were mass crowds at all. Blood and suppression rallied the troops.

But why did they die? Most clashes occurred on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which leads from Tahrir Square along the American University in Cairo and toward the Interior Ministry. During this time the square itself was peaceful, with one exception when police and army cleared it together, but then immediately re-allowed its occupation. From my observer standpoint the two posited explanations made no sense at all. One, the protestors were trying to storm the ministry and burn it down. Two, the protestors were defending Tahrir against the police, who wished to raid it and prevent further protests. I do believe that participants in Mohamed Mahmoud may well have believed these explanations, one against the other.

But with so many deaths and injuries, why did this fight rage for several days? Protestors could have pulled back to Tahrir and its relative safety; if the police stormed through their aggression would have been obvious. By continuing the fight the protestors enabled accusations against them.

Yet the same can be said of police. Though they suffered far fewer injuries, they could have pulled back to the Interior Ministry and set up barricades. By engaging the protestors so far from these grounds they enabled the accusations of trying to suppress peaceful proteStreet

So was either group then seeking one of these objectives? If police were seeking to clear the square, they could have done so from any number of entry points. In fact this was done (as mentioned), and required little effort at all. Why then did the fighting rage in the side streets?

Perhaps there were a few thousand protestors in Mohamed Mahmoud. Though they threw stones and Molotov cocktails, they were otherwise weaponless. Did they believe they would overcome police? Perhaps. Protests in January led to the burning of several police stations throughout the country, when the police withdrew. This is still a mysterious part of the revolution for me, but it is plausible, however unlikely, there was a real offensive underway.

A Video Depiction of the Conflict

Furthermore, video from Mohamed Mahmoud gives a different picture than the circulated images of ‘warzones’ from the media. This video was filmed on the 20th, while numbers were still growing. It was also filmed during the daylight, and testimony suggests there was more violence after dark. Yet assuming the manner of clashes was consistent throughout, the video depicts a very slow moving conflict.

A vanguard of a few dozen protestors stand at the front lines and throw stones, while another hundred or so mill behind them, with the mass of a thousand or so further back. The story is similar on the police side. One or two move forward with tear gas launchers, or bird pellet shotguns, and fire towards the crowds. Behind them are several others, with even more further back. Every once in a while they charge briefly, but all in all, the conflict rarely moves more than a few meters. Even more telling, between the two sides is the length of at least half a city block, or more. It is not trench warfare; it is a faceoff.

Even so, no one stands their ground to be killed for no reason. Something was at stake, but what?

Seeking Sense through Conspiracy Theories

The assumed implausibility of these two scenarios has led to a number of conspiracy theories. The chief line of conspiracy analysis says the protests were manufactured; excessive violence was employed and blood shed so that protestors would flock back to Tahrir Square. Telling support is marshaled in lieu of the elections, which were only a week away at the time. In whose interests were protests manipulated? That depends on the storyteller, but there are three candidates: The military, the liberals, and the Islamists, with shadowy Tahrir specters floating throughout them all.

Against the Military Council

The conspiracy for the military is simple. The armed forces have ruled Egypt since the 1952 revolution and they are loathe to give up power now. Circumstances have forced the Arab Spring upon them, and they are not entirely opposed, but must remain in control. Elections are a threat, whether liberals or Islamists come to power, so why not engineer a crisis to ‘postpone’ them, and continue to manipulate public opinion back to pre-revolutionary sentiments?

Against the Liberals

The conspiracy for the liberals is less simple. All indications pointed to an Islamist victory in elections, which could well lead to the cementing of an Islamic state in the new constitution. While ivory tower liberals could not engineer this crisis on their own, either the police or the army provoked a situation to delay elections and work towards a situation in which the powers-that-be – business interests, media, the political establishment – marginalize the Islamists. Here is where the simplicity is loStreet

One line of conspiracy imagines this crisis was meant as a trap for the Islamists. One day before the small sit-in was raided Islamist forces led a massive protest in Tahrir Square. Perhaps it was hoped that these forces would be drawn into conflict with the police, and then fall accused of fermenting violence, resulting in widespread discrediting. This is the interpretation publically issued by the Muslim Brotherhood. If it was a trap, they did not fall for it, as they refused to engage. Their official line was that participation would have led to more bloodshed.

The other line of conspiracy accounts for this possibility. The protestors of Mohamed Mahmoud were championed in many circles as heroes against the ‘Mubarak-style’ repression of police. By not joining the protests the Islamists would be seen as abandoning the original spirit of Tahrir Square for their long desired electoral success. In fact, the Brotherhood was panned by many, both political parties and simple residents of Cairo. Yet if it was a conspiracy to discredit them politically it failed, as Islamists are currently sweeping the vote in the majority of constituencies.

Against the Islamists

The conspiracy for the Islamists is complicated. Islamists are suspected of playing both sides of an issue, so they come out the winners on either result. Recounting conspiracies must therefore jump back and forth across possibilities.

In the background is the question of international support. Conventional wisdom and Egyptian history suggest the ruling powers are threatened by Islamists. Yet there is a flip side, casting shadows on all possibilities, that a shift is underway. Some observers believe the ‘West’, the US, and via their international aid the Egyptian military council as well, are now poised to accept Islamist rule provided it respects international norms and the market economy. The Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps, is pragmatic and business oriented enough to accept this arrangement.

If true, or even otherwise, why would Islamists be behind the events of Tahrir Square, which ostensibly threatened elections? It should be noted, first of all, that despite official Brotherhood denials, there were Islamists in the square. Salafis were present in good number, and many youth from the Brotherhood ‘broke rank’ and joined in as well. Brotherhood youth are revolutionary, and forged many bonds with their secular activist counterparts. Conspiracy suggests, though, they could have been there by design.

Why? There are two options. First, as long as the Brotherhood could publically deny their official presence, distance from the ‘revolutionaries’ could help their cause. As most liberal political groups threw their support behind the protestors – winning the sympathies of the Tahrir crowd – the Brotherhood remained in the background as the rest of Egypt grows tired of endless protests. Even if elections were to be postponed, the Brotherhood would do well whenever they were held. Perhaps some leaders even feared their support might not have been as strong as was rumored. An election delay, and further discrediting of Tahrir liberals, might give them a boost.

Second, if the demonstrations in Tahrir succeeded, the presence of Brotherhood youth would allow the group to stake its claim as a revolutionary force, similar to January, when official leaders remained in the background. There would be damage control to render, of course, but if the military council resigned the weight of the Brotherhood could not be ignored in subsequent negotiations.

Another scenario is that Islamists did not want the postponement of elections, but did desire the chaos leading up to it. In fact, they initiated the massive Friday protest preceding the clashes. The security situation in Egypt has been deteriorating with rumors rampant the elections would be terribly violent. Against the backdrop of Tahrir, many average Egyptians might be afraid to go to the polls. The Brotherhood is understood as benefiting from low turnout, as their political machine would be able to command its usual support. While deaths and injuries mounted, Islamists demanded elections be held on time.

Against the Revolutionaries

Finally, the conspiracy for the Tahrir specters is obscure. This theory centers on the makeup of the core demonstrators in the square. That the masses came was necessary, but others call the shots. A murky figure in this camp is Baradei, who was present among them briefly, and hailed as the savior of a proposed ‘national salvation government’.

The mechanisms to achieve success in this conspiracy are unclear however, as Tahrir has no real power. Yet many hard core activists insist on the reality of the term: Egypt has had a revolution, and it is not yet finished. Revolutions are not won through elections, but through the seizing of power by a few. Baradei is not a revolutionary, and he is not in the trenches. He is considered a liberal, connected with Islamists, and under suspicion by many. It is said he has no credibility on the Egyptian street, and could thus never win a popular vote. Is there another operation underway to bring him to power? Is Tahrir the method, whatever that means?

Part Two, focusing on a participant’s testimony, will be presented tomorrow.

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