CAIRO – The protest began with the air of a carnival, and degenerated into days
of rampage and violence that left at least 60 dead and hundreds
Last Friday, Egyptians marked the two-year anniversary of the
January 25 Revolution, which toppled president Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of
rule. After a sunny afternoon that drew 100,000 people, a few hundred hardcore
protesters clashed sporadically with riot police in Tahrir Square after darkness
fell. Nine people died in clashes across the country.
With the country
already tense and nearing breaking point, Saturday’s poorly timed announcement
of the death sentence for 21 people involved in the Port Said Soccer Stadium
disaster of February 2012 sparked a violent mutiny in that coastal
President Mohamed Morsi imposed emergency rule in Port Said as
residents stormed through the streets, furious over the sentencing. Fifty-four
people were killed in the riots that followed.
On Tuesday, Gen. Abdel
Fattah al-Sisi, the defense minister and head of the Egyptian military, warned
that the unrest “could lead to the collapse of the state.”
expected this level of violence for the two-year anniversary. Everything started
out so peacefully.
Across Cairo on Friday, a dozen neighborhood marches,
each with thousands of people or more, streamed toward Tahrir Square. Roads
across the city were shut down and most businesses stayed closed as people
crowded into the streets to express their frustration and anger at Morsi and the
Muslim Brotherhood. To avoid confrontation, the Muslim Brotherhood vowed to stay
away from the protests and complete “good deeds” throughout the day, including
planting trees and renovating schools.
Just as it had been two years
earlier, the crowd in Tahrir was an electric mix of engineers and street
sweepers, university students and homeless beggars.
Still disgusted with
the government, protesters recycled the same chants from the historic
18-day-uprising. “The people want to bring down the regime,” and “Leave! Leave!
Leave!” they chanted, this time referring to Morsi instead of Mubarak. The same
cries for “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice!” echoed down the streets that
thronged with people.
In Tahrir today, January 2013, there are two
separate revolutions: the protests by day, and the protests by
With the cotton candy, popcorn, face paint in the colors of the
Egyptian flag, and toddlers running through their parents legs, the protests
initially felt like a carnival.
The daytime protests still attract a wide
stratum of social classes and idealistic people committed to making a change.
The passionate young people, many from the April 6 Youth Movement who were the
face of the revolution two years ago, are still pursuing community initiatives,
trying valiantly to recapture the passion they had felt two years before. In
some ways, they are succeeding.
A group called “Mosireen” systematically
catalogues an enormous database with more than a 10 million MB of information,
of footage of the protests taken by demonstrators themselves, in order to create
a lasting record of their struggle and an alternative for the censored
Female protesters have started activist organizations to protect
them from the increasing sexual assaults during protests, including Operation
Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) and others. On Friday, after dark, this group
used Roman candles and fireworks to break up groups any time they felt men were
menacingly surrounding a female protester.
That is the daytime face of
the revolution, the one trying to move the country forward toward a working
When night falls, however, a more sinister element takes over
the protests. The gender balance, fairly equal during the day, is replaced by
masses of violent, angry, young men who wear ski masks and walk around twirling
metal pipes and crowbars absent-mindedly.
A rising force in the Egyptian
protests is the “ultras” who are fanatical soccer fans, and often responsible
for the violence at protests.
These violent protests are usually confined
to areas surrounding important government symbols, such as the Interior
Ministry. The Muslim Brotherhood strategy for dealing with these protests is
defensive. Let the people stay as long as they want in Tahrir or other public
squares, they say, let’s just defend the government buildings.
Tahrir, you see very few security forces. The riot police stand behind concrete
barriers they’ve erected to stop protesters from entering government buildings,
massive concrete blocks they build up and dismantle like Legos depending on the
location of that days’ clashes.
People were crushed to death and others
were thrown to their death from balcony seating.
Eyewitnesses of the
massacre said police did nothing to stop the melee and even refused to open the
doors to allow people to escape. The massacre was held up as proof of the
country’s slide toward anarchy.
Al Ahly ultras, or soccer fans, who were
very involved in the protests to topple Mubarak two years ago, claim that the
massacre was part of a conspiracy to punish them for their part in the
In the aftermath of the massacre, 73 people were
Amid many delays, the judge finally announced the death
sentence for 21 of the defendants on Saturday. The week before the verdict, the
“ultras” from Al Ahly posted online threats promising to destroy and burn
buildings across Cairo if they are unsatisfied with the verdict.
If it is
anything less than capital punishment, “the country will burn,” one 19-year-old
“ultra” named Ahmed told The Jerusalem Post on Friday in Tahrir Square. “We are
angry because we haven’t received our rights... it’s not just a football match,
the Brotherhood wants to continue to burn the country to they can continue to
rule,” he said. “There’s no justice.”
Saturday’s verdict brought cheers
from Al Ahly fans in the courtroom in Port Said and in Cairo. Outside the Al
Ahly club in Cairo, thousands of fans gathered and chanted “[expletive] Port
Saidis!” and “The martyrs are in heaven!” The stadium filled with Al Ahly
supporters who spilled out onto the field singing the Al Ahly fight song as they
celebrated the verdict.
But in Port Said, angry residents stormed through
the streets after the verdict was announced, prompting the army to bring armored
vehicles and military police to fan across the city. Fifty two people were
killed in the riots.
Gunshots were reported near the prison where most of
the defendants were being held as their families attempted to free them from
On Sunday, the TV stations ran continuous live footage of Port
A river of humanity carrying dozens and dozens of caskets streamed
toward the cemeteries.
Clashes continued across the country. On Monday,
Morsi declared a month-long state of emergency in Port Said, Ismailia and Suez,
with a curfew and the ability for soldiers to arrest civilians. He also
cancelled a trip to France planned for Thursday, though he will still visit
Germany on a shortened trip to plead for foreign investment.
most Egyptians are desperate for stability.
Tourism, a major factor in
the Egyptian economy that employs 12 percent of the workforce, is in shambles as
foreigners stay away from the unstable country following the revolution. Only
political stability will allow tourism to slowly remerge.
Egyptians, there is a determination now not to let the revolution hijack their
lives. They insist on their regular Friday evening shisha or water pipe, at
their regular coffee shop, despite the location of the current
Sometimes the Egytians continue to smoke placidly, women
daintily dabbing at their eyes with their headscarves, as the tear gas wafts
through the alleyways. Just enough tear gas to make you uncomfortable, but
enough to bear it – so why move when you know eventually the branches burning in
the makeshift roadblocks will eventually go out and the hooligans will move onto
the next street? There are parts of the conflict which are starting to resemble
the Israeli black humor. On Friday night, while unwinding from the protests just
a few hundred meters from Tahrir, a loud explosion rattled the antique French
wooden window frames of a friend’s apartment.
“What was that?” we
wondered, still holding our glasses of red wine aloft. And then the next
sentence was so Israeli. “Hey, do you guys want to order takeout Lebanese food?
There’s a great place down the street and the delivery guy can usually get
through police lines.”
The revolution that started with so much optimism
has only increased poverty in Egypt. Foreign investors have fled and 100,000
people lose their jobs every month, according to experts.
Egypt today is
Revolutions are a messy, heartbreaking business.
years ago, the opposition took to the streets and was united in its explosive
call: Down with Hosni Mubarak.
The world held its breath in admiration as
Mubarak wavered and then fell, ending a 30 year dictatorship. Two years later,
the protesters got their wish, but public opinion has splintered into a myriad
of different directions as the economy disintegrates.
A few, like Khaled,
a medical student, preached patience: “I don’t like his policies, but I am for
the president,” he said. “He has only had seven months, we need more
Others are more militant, and have refused to work within the
system for a democratic change of power because they believed it is useless.
“We’re not going to wait four years [until the end of Morsi’s term] without
freedom and democracy,” said Magdi, a veteran leader in the Building Egypt
activist group. “If we wait four years, they’re going to stay for 100 years,” he
Many others yearn for the stability of Mubarak, something they
never thought they’d do.
“I’m afraid for the future, I don’t know what
will happen,” said Petra, a Coptic Christian who works in an enormous tourist
store in the old Coptic Christian quarter of Cairo.
“I was happy for the
revolution, but now I am not,” she said, sitting outside the darkened shop. As a
way to save money, the store only turns on the electricity when tourists come
by. As for the fear of living as a Copt under the Muslim Brotherhood, Petra
throws her eyes heavenward. “God save us,” she said. “All of my relatives tried
to go to America.”
Tales of woe abound across Egypt. Sitting in a coffee
shop, Ali said he supported the revolution until inflation got out of control.
In the past two months, the Egyptian pound has lost approximately 10 percent of
its value, nearly putting his downtown store out of business.
instability drags on, the feeling in Cairo is one of frustration and
While caught up in the ecstasy of the 18-day revolution, no
one was prepared for the challenges that come the morning after a dictator
falls: when the country must create democratic institutions from
The longer the country is in political limbo, the further their
economy will have to claw its way back up to 2010 levels.
historically the commercial heart of the city is increasingly isolated as
drivers never know which roads will be open, and avoid the area
Some are hopeful that the parliamentary elections in late
March or April will mark the turning point, when the country can begin to try to
govern itself again. Others have resigned themselves to a long economic
Ahmed Abd El Wahab, an economist with the Egyptian Union of
Liberal Youth, estimates that even if the government took all the correct steps
toward rehabilitating the economy, it would still take 10 years to reach the
pre-revolution level. However, the only step Morsi has taken to help is
canceling the government subsidy for high-end petrol used in luxury cars, hardly
inspiring confidence, El Wahab noted wryly.
On my last day in Cairo it
rained intermittently throughout the day.
The ratty tents, frayed along
the edges, and the signs smearing in the rain seemed like an apt metaphor for
the revolution, two years later: hanging on to the idealism, but battered and
destroyed by the reality of the economic climate.
As the rain stopped,
clashes began again on the Qasr El- Nil bridge. It was unclear if the protesters
were trying to make a point, or were just unemployed, angry young men frustrated
with the lack of opportunities after the revolution.
The bitter stench of
tear gas wound its way around the alleyways and made me fight back tears as I
left downtown Cairo.
I tried to take solace in the words of a pacifist
activist named Emad, who expressed some hope, with reservation, for the future.
“What is improving is things that don’t have to do at all with the state
itself,” he said. “The people are improving. The people are becoming more
courageous, even though the state is becoming much more oppressive.”