The disturbances in and around Tahrir Square in recent weeks have resulted in the erection of several walls cutting across downtown streets. These were built at the time to separate demonstrators from security forces as they battled in the streets. Additionally, some were built to provide additional protection from sensitive government facilities, especially the Ministry of the Interior, which runs the police. Some of these walls – namely near the Parliament building – are barbed wire allowing for foot traffic to flow while preventing mass demonstrations. The majority, however, are massive cement blocks which make Cairo begin to resemble an apocalyptic scene.
Julie’s parents have been visiting us, and the other day I accompanied them downtown to the Egyptian Museum, in the heart of Tahrir Square. I took advantage of the time to check out the scene. Many areas are too sensitive to photograph, but in and around the places of confrontation there were dozens of cameras – mainly for demonstrators seeking documentation – so I was more comfortable.
Fortunately I made my tour during a comparative lull in the conflict, but not without a reminder of how terrible tear gas is.
The most recent clashes occurred when angry protestors gathered near the Ministry of the Interior following the deaths of near eighty soccer fans in Port Said. While this may have been the result of hooliganism gone amuck, many people feel the tensions were deliberately stoked and facilitated by the security forces. The hardcore soccer fans then took to the streets, joined by other hardcore protestors who believe the police – the target of widespread anger in the January revolution – still reflects and works on behalf of the former regime.
In these street battles there is often little fighting. Usually a handful of protestors advances to the front lines, and will often throw rocks or Molotov cocktails. The police respond with tear gas, and there is a no man’s land in between the two sides. In addition, the police stand accused of using shotguns which fire pellets that scatter, resulting in small, but multiple wounds on a body. At times these have been fatal, or caused protestors to lose their eyes.
These clashes appear to have been different, though it is hard to verify. With all the walls downtown the Ministry of the Interior is effectively sealed off. Police could simply remain behind the walls, but some reports claim they have driven around the streets in their vehicles chasing after protestors. Whether or not this is true, other reports suggest the police have been the ones under pressure. One of the stone barriers has been destroyed as demonstrators filled the streets en masse. It also appears some demonstrators have fired similar shotgun pellets at police, resulting in many injuries. Whoever the aggressor is, to date around fifteen people have died in clashes over the past few days.
This picture is of a historic French research center housing many old documents. It was the scene of earlier clashes, in which an errant (or intentional) Molotov cocktail landed inside and destroyed the building with much of its content. Following the street to the right will lead to the largest Protestant Church in the Middle East, which has doubled in function as a field hospital during clashes over the past few months.
The next picture shows the street – Mohamed Mahmoud – which was also a scene of earlier clashes, described here and here. Not much was happening but many were gathered, and I wandered down to get a feel for the atmosphere. About halfway in the crowd turned and ran in my direction, but many at my level were calm and stationary. I turned to walk out with them, and soon knew why. The police had launched another round of tear gas.
I neither heard nor saw anything, but on the way out it became more and more difficult to breathe. My eyes watered and I was grateful to soon be back out in the open air of Tahrir Square. I stayed put for a little while just watching from a distance, but again, little was happening. The tear gas was meant simply to drive people back, keeping the sanctity of no man’s land.
I walked around town a bit to see where other clashes had taken place, as well as the barriers erected here and there. Near the Parliament I passed by about two hundred women who were leading a march to deliver demands to their representatives. They shouted against the military regime, and were viewed by many curious onlookers. Earlier in the day there was news of a larger ‘mother’s march’ which went to the site of the clashes to demand their sons stop being killed. This group, though, was much younger in appearance.
I kept moving and after taking several city blocks to maneuver around the barricades wound up on the other side of the clashes. The police line by this point was very calm, with many pedestrians milling about. This was the site of a great battle the night before, and many shops were damaged and the pavement scarred. All felt well, but it did not seem like the place for pictures.
Continuing the circuit, I wound up parallel to Mohamed Mahmoud looking in at the action from side streets. At the entrance were large crowds, appearing to regulate traffic in and out. It was not quite a human wall, but there were several arguments between people about joining the demonstrations or accusing them of ‘burning Egypt’. After several minutes of just watching, I meant to move through, but one of the group whistled and told me to come back. It was an easy decision to comply.
The next side street down had a similar scene. Again I waited within the crowd to get a sense of the situation. After a while I moved again to go to the main street and this time just sauntered by. It was eerie, as the street was deserted save for the handful of people moving either direction. Once I got back to Mohamed Mahmoud, though, I was back among the demonstrators and the several onlookers, as well as the multiple cameras, and all was well.
There was no conflict, except a philosophical one among those present. Several people rallied in the middle of the street and shouted, ‘To the Square, to the Square, he who goes is not a coward.’ Others adjusted their chant against the military council, shouting against this effort, ‘Down, down with the (Muslim) Brothers.’
There was nothing distinguishing about the effort to lead people away from the areas of conflict, but in the news were the efforts of different parliamentarians, among them the Muslim Brothers, who tried to mediate to end the clashes. The Muslim Brotherhood has positioned itself as the party of stability in the past several months. While this has played well among the electorate at large, it has infuriated the protestors who feel the Brotherhood is betraying the revolution now that they have won their legislative majority. Whether or not this effort was Brotherhood, it brought the anger of several. Most did not leave, even as the group clasped arms across the street and tried to sweep everyone away as they left.
Shortly after this I noticed a large contingent of Azhar sheikhs milling among the people as well. The Azhar has scholars of different persuasions, but is generally understood to be non-Brotherhood though socially conservative. Whoever these sheikhs represented, they were seeking a similar result, urging people to go back to the square.
At one point a sheikh mounted a wall with a megaphone, but was drowned out by protestors shouting against him. His non-sheikh colleague took the megaphone and tried to gain an audience, beginning with ‘Down, down with military government.’ At this everyone cheered, and at least listened somewhat as they tried to argue the merits of protesting in Tahrir rather than in the streets leading to the Ministry of the Interior. They convinced no one, and after a bit the soccer fan among the protestors grouped together and raised their own cheers, dancing around and waiving their hands. All the while the police looked on from their line right even with the wall on which the Azhar sheikh stood.
By now several hours had passed and I started back to the museum to receive my in-laws. The following pictures show scenes from the center of conflict back out toward Tahrir Square.
At the end, I offered in-laws a chance to see the action and smell the lingering tear gas. All was calm, and they agreed, coming to the entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud before we found the nearest metro to return home. The following picture shows them in front of a sign accusing the military council figures of being oppressors, condemning them through a quote from the Qur’an.
There is a much different feel about the protests compared to that experienced last January. While the initial revolution was met with violence, there was a sense of hope and purpose, buttressed by the sheer number of people and the diversity of their backgrounds.
This time there is much revolutionary fatigue, and the revolutionaries are largely on their own. The anniversary of the 25th brought the masses, renewing their vitality, and every bloody incident serves to rally more troops. But for the most part those there now are troublemakers, curious onlookers, hardcore activists, street children, or some combination of the sort. Without commenting on the rightness or wrongness of their continuing struggle against military rule, the hope of earlier days has been replaced by the reality of death and struggle.
The following picture is a beautiful graffiti rendering of a few recent ‘martyrs’ who have perished on this street. Yet above them is written a curious phrase, seen elsewhere on city walls. It translates, ‘Peaceful is completely dead.’ In another place it continued, ‘Now we will take our rights by our own hands.’
In January every time the protestors were met with violence on the part of the police they called out ‘Peaceful, peaceful’. Now, though many still cling to this commitment, others have been induced to let it go. They feel that since Mubarak stepped down they have been increasingly killed during their protests, and must now change tactics. By no means is the situation as in Syria, where armed groups have formed among military defections, but this is a strong indication of the loss of hopeful idealism.
The latest change in tactics serves to take advantage of the final anniversary from the earlier revolution. Last year on February 11 Mubarak stepped down from power as the people celebrated. This year, a broad revolutionary alliance is calling for nationwide civil disobedience and a general labor strike, in addition to a boycott of all consumer products manufactured by the military.
It is unclear how much support this initiative has. The Muslim Brotherhood has condemned it, while several university student groups have indicated their participation. It is not a turn toward violence, but rather an effort to find another avenue toward hope (or chaos) – forcing the military to surrender power to civilians. The demand is that power be given to the Parliament with presidential elections to follow at the earliest moment possible.
The military council is currently weighing its options, and a prominent general has promised ‘good news’ will shortly be issued. What this entails is anyone’s guess.
So is the next phase in the Egyptian revolution.