The Battle for Mohamed Mahmoud Street: Testimony

Mohamed Mahmoud Street, with barricades in the near- and far-ground, erected by the army

note: This is Part Two of the Mohamed Mahmoud Clashes. For Part One dealing with surrounding conspiracies, click here.

Balancing Conspiracy with Testimony

Each of these conspiracy theories has several flaws; indeed each flaw is revealed in the theory of its opposite. Furthermore, the theories thrive not on fact, but on speculation where facts are absent. In each of the above suspects there is little transparency; even where it exists it is doubted due to the sizeable stakes allotted to the winners. For more clarity direct testimony is needed.

Even testimony, however, is colored by the media. Furthermore, activists have their own causes which filter through their narrative. Even so, this report is able to present the testimony of one ‘combatant’ in the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes. His perspective appears credible, and sheds light on why many, perhaps, were there. At the least it reveals why he took part.

The testimony comes from a Coptic Christian resident of Shubra, Cairo, who prefers to remain anonymous. Though he has spoken of his tale on Facebook and Twitter, he believes these avenues to be largely ignored by the police. Foreign media, on the other hand, is monitored and suspect.

Non-Revolutionary Pedigree

Mina, as he will henceforth be called, was an onlooker during the January revolution, connected only to the pro-Mubarak State TV. Slowly he became politicized as he considered joining, but refrained, fortunately, the morning of the infamous Battle of the Camel. Yet momentum triumphed and he descended to Tahrir the Friday after Mubarak resigned, swept up in the euphoria.

Interestingly, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the renowned Islamist scholar connected with the Muslim Brotherhood, gave the traditional Friday sermon. Mina’s church community in Shubra was long suspicious of the revolution as the agenda of political Muslims, and Mina found himself in the position of having to represent Tahrir Square to apprehensive friends and family. Qaradawi’s words, he said, were inclusive and wise.

Over the months that followed Mina became increasingly concerned about the fate of the revolution vis-à-vis the ‘remnants of the former regime’ or the slow-moving government cabinet. He followed devotedly major activists on Twitter and saw events through their lens. He lent his presence during many major summer demonstrations. Yet he also grew critical of the sectarian Christian slice of revolutionary activity. Following each sequential attack on a church or Christian community, he foreswore the Coptic-specific protests in Maspero in favor of wide ranging condemnations issued from Tahrir, only two blocks away.

Over time, in fact, Mina began to see his chief revolutionary contribution to lie in translation of Tahrir to the traditional Coptic residents of Shubra, at least those within his circle of influence. He began to go less and less to the square, instead spending more time defending it among his friends on Facebook.

In Mohamed Mahmoud Street

Until, that is, the Twitter community broadcast the injuries suffered in Tahrir Square on November 19. He followed along horrified, and then went down the next morning when he found a friend of like mind.

The idea was not to engage the police, but to swell the numbers of demonstrators. It was a well known rule among protestors that small crowds meant increased chances for violent suppression. Hoping simply to be one of many, Mina and his friend arrived in Tahrir and found some, but no signs of conflict.

It did not take much searching. Tahrir was peaceful but they followed the commotion to Mohamed Mahmoud Street and found themselves via a side street immediately at the front lines.

Their description fits with that above. Protestors and police swayed through patterns of advance and retreat. Though the security movement was based on tactics, the crowd relied on emotion and passion. Mina was drawn in; police brutality was a central point of the January revolution, a principal cause of transitional frustration, and was once again in play. His friend threw rocks, but Mina chose not to. Both soon fell into the semi-violent rhythm: Watch the tear gas canister shot through the air to gauge its landing spot, run away, re-congregate, and advance again from another angle. As protestors were either shot by pellets or collapsed from tear gas inhalation, a Salafi riding a motorbike would come and ferry the injured back to Tahrir makeshift field clinics. To Mina and his friend, this man was a hero.

Characterizing the Combatants

The Salafi was notable by his beard and robe, but fit right in with the diversity of the crowd. It was clear to Mina that some were upper class as they twiddled on Twitter or were outfitted with expensive gas masks. Then there were others with torn sandals, shabby clothing, and a piece of cloth tied under their nose for protection. Yet they were one, and Mina was with them.

They were the good guys. They coordinated with residents to remove cars from the street so they were not damaged in the clashes. They climbed the buildings to put out fires caused by errant tear gas canisters landing in residential apartments. There was no vandalism. At one point during a temporary halt in hostilities, the protestors cleared the street from all rocks and debris.

The police, meanwhile, were the absolute bad guys. Groupthink solidarity took hold and Mina and his friend purposed not to abandon their newfound colleagues. At one point after several hours they pulled away to buy a sandwich to refuel for the evening, and a stranger asked sympathetically for them not to leave them. It was their furthest thought. They were in it together, and they were angry. They were determined not to yield their ground to police. They would not be defeated.

Mina relates there were no plans to storm the Ministry of the Interior. Yet he confessed also he somewhat fantasized about it – what they would do if the police gave up. Its burning would not have been for the sake of destruction, he explained, but for the sake of its corrupt symbolism. The people must win; the institution needs purging. Though never feeling on the cusp of victory, their greatest advance led them within eyesight, 700 meters away.

The Role of the Army

To Mina’s surprise, their conflict was not with the police alone. Earlier in the day Mina and his friend tended to nature’s call in a computer mall on Bustan Street, a few blocks north from the conflict flashpoint. Shortly later they found themselves in a mix-up with the military, who, unknown to them, had just cleared Tahrir Square completely with the help of the police. In Taalat Harb Square he witnessed a soldier fire a tear gas canister directly at a protestor, who turned just in time to avoid being hit in the chest. Yet before this conflict tarried too long, the scene was quiet as all security forces withdrew. Their displaced local group lurched back to Tahrir, found it empty, and reoccupied. Meanwhile, the battle continued on Mohamed Mahmoud.

During the evening hours Mina believed the military was involved again. He judged from their brown uniforms and sturdy build, as opposed to the black of the riot police with their equipment covering their normal Egyptian scrawny bodies. At nightfall only the soccer hooligan contingent continued scuffles with the police, who were now more passive behind a barricade. On a Mohamed Mahmoud side street leading to Sheikh Rehan Street, however, the protestors fought the army.

Nightfall was much more violent, with more casualties. Tear gas canisters could not be sighted in the sky, and victims fell from gunshot, not just pellets. He saw dead bodies. Mina had never repeated calls against the military council, though he joined many in condemning military trials for civilians. Yet that night in the street he prayed God would not allow military rule to continue. He did what he could on his part, maintaining his presence until the early morning hours.

Once home he was grilled by family and friends. Once again they wondered why he was there at a Muslim protest. Two days earlier Islamists, primarily, had called for a massive demonstration which led to the small sit-in violently dispersed. He was far too tired to answer, or even to think coherently. After several hours of sleep he arose, answered all possible questions on this Facebook page, and referred all inquisitors there. He did not return to Tahrir, which continued its protest for several days. Mina relates his community now understands better what took place, trusts him, and is sympathetic.

Conclusion

It is only one testimony, and should not be generalized. Nevertheless the sentiment that comes through is of a situation that escalated quickly, pungent with emotion and a lingering sense of grievance. Anger and solidarity drove the protestors, not strategy. Where there is no strategy, there is also no conspiracy – at least not from their part.

While testimony is lacking, it may well be anger and solidarity which drove the police as well. Images from this and other confrontations with protestors depict police taunting and celebrating against their rivals. Rivalry may be an apt description; it is said police feel as if they ‘lost’ in January, while protestors feel their ‘win’ has not been cemented as the Ministry of Interior fails to reform. The explosion at Mohamed Mahmoud Street may have stemmed from these unresolved tensions.

This is not to absolve any ringleaders from the charge of conspiracy, whoever they may be. Rumors are the catalyst for conspiracy, and Twitter is fertile ground. Surely most retweets were innocent; could some have been planted to provoke an onslaught of support? Were the specters of Tahrir in play?

Little else from Mina’s testimony adds to charges against the other suspects listed above, except for his tentative identification of military contribution to the clashes. While the reasons behind clearing Tahrir Square remain mysterious, the contingent at nighttime may well have been seeking to stand between the two factions. Or not, but Mina’s words alone are not sufficient to state either way.

The main contribution is simply to highlight his own heart during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. Conspiracies concern the big picture, the puppet master, but may well have no basis at all in reality. On the other hand, Mina and thousands of others represent the detail. They do not represent puppets. They are the reality. They are flesh and blood willing to put their lives on the line for the most visceral – and perhaps noble – of reasons. Their mistakes may have been many; their wisdom may have failed them. Yet they were there, and may we trust they were there for good.

If testimony was available from the side of the police, it is quite possible similar nobility would come through. Individual policemen also represent the detail. They too are the reality. They stood their ground in front of what must have appeared an angry mob. They did their job.

If either one were puppets, may God forgive those who abused them. Much of Mohamed Mahmoud, and even Tahrir Square in its entirety, may only make sense in retrospect, several years from now. Until then, while focus is needed on the big picture, the individual details must not be forgotten. These are the lives fighting for Egypt’s future, just as much as any army general or political leader. Conspiracy may enwrap them all, but it must not obscure them. Each is given a share, and each will be held accountable.

May God honor all who strive for right.

Translation: Martyrs Street, formerly Mohamed Mahmoud Street

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