Frustration reigns at Tahrir Square two years later

Reporter's Notebook: Two years after the Egyptian revolution, frustration and economic ruin only too palpable at Tahrir Square.

Ratty tents at rainy Tahrir Square in Cairo 370 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Ratty tents at rainy Tahrir Square in Cairo 370
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
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 wounded.
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 city.
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.”
No one 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 night.
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 media.
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 democracy.
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.
Inside 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 demonstrations.
In the aftermath of the massacre, 73 people were arrested.
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 prison.
On Sunday, the TV stations ran continuous live footage of Port Said.
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.
Meanwhile, 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.
Among regular 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 clashes.
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 struggling.
Revolutions are a messy, heartbreaking business.
Two 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 time.”
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 said.
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.
As the instability drags on, the feeling in Cairo is one of frustration and resignation.
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 scratch.
The longer the country is in political limbo, the further their economy will have to claw its way back up to 2010 levels.
Downtown, the historically the commercial heart of the city is increasingly isolated as drivers never know which roads will be open, and avoid the area altogether.
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 depression.
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.”