Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Making sense of Tahrir

For Egyptians, the revolution far from over. This is what struck me most being in Tahrir Square on Tuesday night as violent clashes erupted between protesters and riot police, eerily reminiscent of the uprising in January and February. Five months later, emotions are still raw. The pace of change in Egypt has failed to satisfy many, and when push came to shove, protesters and security forces locked themselves into a familiar showdown for legitimacy and authority, as manifested in control of symbolic Tahrir.

I was at a "Tweetup" in downtown Cairo- which is a face-to-face meeting of Twitter activists, journalists, etc.- when we heard rumors of tear gas and rubber bullets in Tahrir Square. When I arrived around 11:30pm, I saw scenes almost identical to the those of January. Protestors and riot police were playing their cat-and-mouse game. The protestors would tear up sidewalks in the square and throw the chunks of pavement at police, charging and forcing them to retreat. Police would then counter with a barrage of suffocating tear gas to disperse the crowd. This continued until about 1:30 am, when the police suddenly pulled back and abandoned the square.

To me, the incident was disorienting- almost inexplicable. Why had ongoing sit-ins in Cairo moved back to Tahrir? What exactly were Egyptians fighting for? Why had the police resorted to the same tired tactics that lost them the crucial battles of January 25th and 28th?

Based on activists' accounts of the chain of events, families of those killed in the January 25th revolution had been staging demonstrations and sit-ins since Friday in front of Maspero, the official state television building. They were demanding justice, which has eluded them thanks to the postponement of key trials of former regime officials and the general intactness of Mubarak's authoritarian machine. Steven Cook from CFR has excellent analysis on this point, which lies at the heart of what happened last night.

"Revolutionaries, activists, and ordinary Egyptians are deeply frustrated by the slow pace of justice... Although the former president, his sons, and their top advisors now languish in jail, Mubarak’s regime remains largely intact... there are large numbers of people—from petty bureaucrats, police commanders, military officers to government ministers and judges (despite the judiciary’s overall reputation for independent thinking)—who do not support the change that so many Egyptians demanded during the uprising. As a result, they are doing what they can to thwart the goals and promise of Tahrir Square."

These demonstrations were escalated by the announcement that the trial of former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adly- the man who allegedly ordered the killing of protestors during the January 25th revolution- is postponed yet again. But what really sparked the action in Tahrir last night was a confrontation that took place two blocks from my apartment.

There seems to be much confusion and miscommunication surrounding this event. From what I can decipher, families of the martyrs were invited to a celebration at the Balloon Theatre in Agouza. When they arrived, they were not only unwelcome, but attacked. Some accounts claim that the celebration was actually in honor of fallen police during the revolution, which sparked the confrontation. Others say that pro-Mubarak thugs were on the scene and sought to cause a commotion. Whatever the reason, they were indeed attacked- this video taken by Egyptian activist Gigi Ibrahim (@GSquare86) shows a demonstrater being relentlessly tazed by police.

Protestors either fled or marched to Tahrir (depending on whose account you follow), where they were joined by thousands of supporters. Riot police were deployed and used tactics that foolishly drew parallels to revolution. Tear gas and rubber bullets no longer intimidate Egyptians (in fact, these tactics lost their utility starting on January 25th), but rally them behind the calls to assert their dignity.

I think the most important thing to recognize here is that before long, the battle was no longer about families of the martyrs, Habib El Adly, the pace of Egypt's democratic transition, or anything else. It was a struggle for both sides to reassert themselves. For protestors, it was a bid to preserve the legacy of the revolution. For security forces, it was a poorly orchestrated attempt at intimidating those who continue to push with revolutionary demands. This is a losing battle for the SCAF and the Ministry of Interior.

Things are momentarily calm in downtown Cairo. There is currently no security presence in Tahrir, but instead military police deployed to surround and protect the Ministry of Interior. Traffic is flowing while activists call for people to return for a sit-in. Regardless of what happens in the next hours, it's painfully clear that Egypt's revolution is far from over. The tinderbox of unanswered calls for change and indignities suffered at the hands of authoritarian forces in Egypt (once Mubarak, now the SCAF) remains, and anti-revolutionary forces are prone to strike it.


  1. Excellent post. but i think your opening statement that "For Egyptians, the revolution far from over" is quite misleading. most egyptians i speak to think of the initial 18 days, leading up to the fall of Mubarak, as the "revolution". like when i say i got here on the 22nd of february they say i "missed the revolution". This is of course quite silly, and many activists and jouno's etc point that out... but to say that this is the opinion of "egyptians" implies a kind of agreement that just isnt there... more is the pity.

  2. Point taken, Austin. No place for sweeping generalizations. And most Egyptians do refer to the revolution in the past tense. But the majority of Egyptian activists I've met (the ones who run off to Tahrir when they hear of action) feel the need to keep fighting because nothing has changed in Egypt. Mubarak was simply replaced by SCAF, they say. They're always trying to wage the "Second Revolution," etc. In that sense, it seems as though they consider their struggle ongoing.