CAIRO — A man stands in Tahrir square selling black masks. Several hundred meters behind him, youth and police exchange rocks and Molotov cocktails in what has become a regular occurrence. The full-face masks could be used as protection from the police’s teargas, and on that day late January more people were buying them instead of the cheaper and more common surgical masks.
A group calling itself the Black Bloc had released a video earlier announcing the launch of its activities. It’s difficult to verify who made the video or who is an actual member of the group. Still, there was instant interest in it. On that day and the weeks that followed, many bought different variations of that black ski mask, hoping to affiliate themselves with the group and its proclaimed attempt to use more organized violence, whether in defense or offense, under a banner of anarchism.
The instant popularity and state-led demonization of the Black bloc is a strong indication of how more people have come to accept the notion of violence in political protests. In conversations with usually conservative citizens who have consistently shunned and condemned protests over the past two years, some admit that they see violence as the only way to unseat President Mohammed Morsi.
First-hand participants of street protests attribute it to continuous police brutality in the face of former peaceful protests and lack of state accountability. The deadly clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents in Cairo in December is often cited as a reason for the recent surge in violence, including setting Muslim Brotherhood offices on fire.
“The inevitability of more violence and more people being killed is a depressing reality here,” Al-Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros wrote in January.
The “violence” — its meaning here exclusive to the Egypt context — has also been associated with apolitical protests that have to do with immediate local grievances, such as the killing of a citizen at the local police station or prolonged fuel and water shortages.
The violence in both cases involves rock throwing, Molotov cocktails, fireworks, attempts to storm government buildings, setting public and private property on fire, and occasional firearms. Blocking roads and railroads and surrounding government buildings are usually classified as acts of violence by the state, giving itself a justification to respond with force and consequently triggering more confrontations.
There is a system — not necessarily a strategy — to the process. As soon as confrontations start, protesters smash sidewalks to get rocks, and glass bottles full of fuel are set up. Preparations involve questions about availability of homemade firearms. Judging from injuries, the protesters’ use of weapons remains relatively limited. Most gunshot fatalities are among protesters.
There’s no evidence that the Black Bloc or its wannabe affiliates have tangibly changed the face of street confrontations in Egypt. Even the rising frequency of confrontations can be easily attributed to a host of other factors, on top of which is the continued police brutality and level of frustration with government policies.
This escalation is also due to “the state’s failure to redefine its relationship with citizens,” according to Karim Ennarah, a criminal justice researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Despite an uprising triggered by police abuses, the state continues to resort to the same repressive practices to quell dissent.
The worst wave of violent clashes this year took place on Jan. 26, when a court sentenced 21 men to death for involvement in the killing of 72 people in the Port Said stadium a year earlier. Angry families and protesters tried to storm the prison in which the men were held. Over 40 people were killed in the port city when police opened fire on the crowd. At least two policemen were shot dead. A day earlier, about 10 were killed in confrontations between protesters and police in the nearby Suez. One police station and other government buildings were set on fire and reportedly looted.
In Cairo, recent clashes involved throwing Molotov cocktails and fireworks at the presidential palace. Muslim Brotherhood supporters claim protesters are trying to storm the palace and some protesters express a wish to do so. But a brief observation of the attacks there reveals that the young men and women at the forefront have no means to do so.
One protester standing at the site of one such confrontation acknowledged the lack of strategy. “It’s out of frustration,” she told me. “It’s provocation. There’s nothing else we could do.”
The aim could be merely disruption, explains Ennarah. “This creates a state of instability. Even if they don’t manage to storm [the government building], they prevented [the rulers] from practicing their authority … from ruling.”
Many of the clashes across Egypt trigger looting and further rioting, which feed into a state of confusion and instability.
Hoping for a rerun
One scenario favored by protesters is a rerun of Jan. 28, 2011, when citizens attacked local police stations and confrontations between central security forces and thousands of protesters across the country escalated. The scale and simultaneous nature of these confrontations eventually tipped the scales in the protesters’ favor.
The uprising was still labeled as “peaceful” though, either due to ignoring the violence as a decisive factor or classifying it as an act of self defense against a brutal police force.
Since then, and with the contribution of an increasingly dysfunctional state and the resulting security vacuum, expressions of violence became more visible in urban centers and not limited to confrontations with the state. Reports indicate more firearms are available to citizens eager to protect themselves.
Many look back at Jan. 28 as proof that only violence works. Ten months later, when over 50 protesters were killed and hundreds injured in five-day clashes with the police, violence was again seen as the leverage that forced the military to set a date to end its rule. At the least, it forces the government to listen.
The intervention of the army this time around is welcomed by some and scorned by others who faced even more brutality during 18 months under its rule. Others hope this state of continued clashes would again push the government to listen and reform its ways.
Two years later, violence is not as concentrated as on Jan. 28, 2011. “It’s more spread out [geographically], but less decisive,” said Ennarah, making a rerun of the Friday of Rage unlikely.
An attempt to form political agreements to renounce the violence had little resonance on the ground. The Azhar-sponsored agreement was criticized for equating protesters’ violence with state brutality, the impunity for which has fueled more anger on the street, and for not addressing the real grievances.
Now the soaring frustration with government’s lack of recognition to protesters’ demands and widening gap between these young protesters and the old opposition politicians leaves many with only street confrontations.
“People like me are over. We’ve been defeated,” Hossam Bahgat, a seasoned rights activist and EIPR head, said in a recent TV interview about torture and sexual assaults in police custody. The new generation, he explained, is being radicalized.
One sentence sprayed on Cairo walls and often quoted by activists and commentators sums it up: “If you don’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.”
Sarah el-Sirgany is a Cairo-based independent journalist. She contributes to Al-Akhbar in Lebanon and CNN, among other regional and international publications and networks. Follow her on twitter: @Ssirgany.