“If I die, post these to my Facebook,” Moustafa Salah, age 22, said half-jokingly as I photographed him in a fifth-story apartment one block from Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. He and four friends prepared for their return to the battle being waged below between Egypt’s Central Security Forces (CSF) and unarmed protesters, which has so far claimed 38 lives and injured thousands.
To protect themselves from the police’s heavy use of tear gas, Moustafa and his friends secured scarves around their faces, gas masks over their mouths, and goggles across their eyes. Some wore bicycle helmets to protect from rubber-coated bullets and birdshots fired by the police. Unfortunately, their makeshift armor offered no protection from the live ammunition fired at them by Egyptian forces intermittently since Tuesday.
Attacks by the police on protesters began last Saturday, after CSF attempted to clear Tahrir Square of peaceful demonstrators, who had united in their call for a quicker transition from military to civilian rule.
After Mubarak’s ouster on 11 February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over, promising to return the country to civilian rule after six months. Yet nine months of military rule have come and gone, characterized by oppressive crackdowns on the media and activists as well as the trial of over 12,000 civilians before military courts. The SCAF’s mismanagement of the post-Mubarak transition to democracy reveals that at best, the SCAF is incompetent; at worst, that it is systematically derailing a proper transition in order to safeguard its own power and interests in the new Egypt.
The young revolutionaries in our Tahrir apartment understand the latest violence as an extension of Egypt’s January revolution. “All we did in January was cut off the head of the regime,” said Ahmed Sabry, age 23. “Now, we’re going for the body.” According to him, the larger aims of the revolution—achieving basic political, personal, and social rights for the Egyptian people—can only be negotiated in the streets.
Although the myth persists that the January revolution was peaceful, Hossam el-Hamalawy, a well-known Egyptian journalist, says that it was not. “The revolution (like any other revolution) witnessed violence by the security forces that led to the killing of at least 846 protesters,” he writes on his blog. “But the people did not sit silent and take this violence with smiles and flowers. We fought back … with rocks, Molotov cocktails, sticks, swords and knives.” In the six-day battle that rocked downtown Cairo last week, the protesters used lessons learned in January to inform their tactics and strategies in confrontations with the police.
“The best way to defend is to attack”
Earlier that night, Moustafa and his friends huddled over a piece of paper, on which he had sketched, hands shaking, a circle with spokes coming out if it—a rough representation of Tahrir Square and surrounding streets.
The brunt of the battle was being waged on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, where protesters and CSF fought for control of the route leading from the square to the Ministry of Interior. The next spoke on the wheel was Tahrir Street, which is connected to Mohammed Mahmoud by a series of alleyways. A main focus of the protesters was to keep the police forces from spilling from Mohammed Mahmoud to Tahrir Street; from there, they could move on to the next spoke, then the next. With control of the surrounding streets, CSF could easily contain protesters in the Square itself, which, for Moustafa and his friends, meant defeat.
“The best way to defend is to attack,” Mohamed Ferghaly, 21, offered, wide-eyed and nervously chain-smoking.
The group decided to weave around to the far side of Tahrir Street, away from the square, and then cross over to Mohammed Mahmoud, surprising the police from behind their own line. They dressed for battle and went out into the street.
Just five minutes later, three of the group surged back into the apartment, keeled over and panting, tear gas residue streaking their faces. Their plan had failed.
The protesters are a diverse group, but the same obstacles facing Moustafa and his friends are reflective of those facing other cells of revolutionaries who were meeting with each other across the square: a lack of organization, a lack of arms, and a lack of numbers. Although experience has taught the protesters methods to mitigate such setbacks, they still face challenges in each area.
When it comes to organization, the protesters play good defense. For example, they have developed sophisticated systems wherein men, and occasionally women, on motorcycles shuttle the injured from the front lines to one of the many field hospitals set up in the square and surrounding streets. Ferghaly points out that there are two men on each motorbike, between whom victims are sandwiched. “We used to just put one runner, but the injured fell off easily, so now we have two.”
When the street got too crowded and the tear gas too overwhelming, we could see protesters in the street below holding hands and forming two parallel lines, constructing two human walls that created an open pathway for fast access to field hospitals via motorcycles.
But when it comes to offense, the protesters “operate in chaos,” says Moustafa.
If Moustafa and his friends had been more organized, they could have rallied enough people to attack the police as per their original plan. But such organization, Ferghaly explains, requires connections and means of communication that they simply did not have. “We couldn’t rally people from the streets. They thought that we were going to lead them into an ambush.”
Yet at heart, they do not want to hurt the police or soldiers. “They don’t want to attack us; they are following orders.” He adds, “Egyptians: when they want, they do. It’s a fact. But we don’t want more blood. Enough blood.”
Even if they had had proper organizing channels, the protesters faced a wall of police well equipped with shotguns, rifles, and CS gas. The protesters used rocks they had ripped up from the sidewalks.
“There is a 50 meter no-man’s-land separating the protesters and the army,” explains Moustafa. “You can only throw rocks so far.” The Ultras – a hard core group of soccer fans who played an instrumental role in the January and February revolution – are slightly better equipped with fireworks, which can travel much farther. The problem is that the fireworks are expensive: 350 Egyptian pounds for just one, about 58 US dollars. Still, the problem is not just a financial one. “If we asked people for money, they would give it to us,” Moustafa said. “The problem is we don’t have enough fighters.”
“Freedom fighters,” he adds, tongue-in-cheek.
With few resources of their own, the protesters have become experts on how to protect themselves from tear gas—one of the CSF’s most effective tools. “When the officers shoot tear gas bombs, they shoot at a 45 degree angle so it’ll go far into the protesters’ ranks. So the protesters have to look at the bomb, and calculate its trajectory,” explains Ferghaly “Then we have to make the people aware of where the bomb will fall.” Once the tear gas bomb explodes and releases its noxious gasses, protesters chuck the canisters back at police or douse them in a mixture of water and sand. To attenuate the effects of lingering clouds of gas in the streets, they build small fires, the smoke of which heats the air and rises, taking the tear gas with it.
Yet these tactics only go so far. I have heard multiple calls by defeated-looking protesters, having seen many friends “fall around them,” as Sabry put it, to take up arms against the police. But in the end, it was all talk. They are peaceful, but angry, and desperate for the police to cease brutality against their ranks.
The violence has stopped, for now
With the protesters unable to overcome the well-equipped security forces yet unwilling to go home – Ferghaly insisted they would stay in Tahrir until “either the army resigns or a massacre wipes us out” – the battle became a seemingly unwinnable war of attrition.
According to Moustafa, the protesters will go home only in the event of SCAF’s immediate resignation and the formation of a National Salvation Government. The country’s various revolutionary forces have yet to agree on who exactly would comprise the transitional body, but they have floated the names of well-respected figures such as Nobel Laureate and current presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baradei to lead it.
Not waiting for political solutions, the army rolled in to relieve the police of their duties and declared a truce. The army has set up a giant concrete barrier on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, barring protesters from the Square from entering the corridor. Engulfed just a short while ago in urban warfare, downtown Cairo is calm.
SCAF refuses to give up power
The SCAF is thus far unwilling to yield power, or to even take responsibility for the violence that was committed against civilians under SCAF’s watch.
Field Marshall Tantawi, the head of the SCAF and object of the protesters’ popular chants “Down, down, with the Field Marshall,” announced on Wednesday that the SCAF had accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and his government. In his place, the SCAF appointed Kamal el-Ganzoury as Prime Minister and tasked him with the formation of a new government.
Asked what he thought of Tantawi’s response, Moustafa just said, “zift” – the Egyptian word meaning tar. “It’s like bullshit,” he translates. As long as the SCAF remains in power, Ganzoury and whatever cabinet he builds will be just another token civilian government with no real authority or legitimacy.
Although many were initially opposed to the protesters’ fighting back the police, heavy losses among their ranks garnered sympathy from a larger swathe of the Egyptian public. By Friday, a week after the start of clashes, tens of thousands of Egyptians were back on the streets, marching from all corners of the city to gather in Tahrir Square and calling for the military to hand over power to a civilian authority immediately. Thousands remained overnight for an ongoing sit-in.
With the current abatement of violence, Sabry goes home to check in with his parents. Moustafa prepares to re-take university exams he missed. Ferghaly set up camp in the square—equipped with tents, warm blankets, and electricity for night lighting and cell-phone charging.
As they reintegrate limited doses of work and school into their daily routines, their lives transition into a state of balanced normalcy. But the battle is from over.
Today, the first round of post-Mubarak parliamentary elections begins amid much controversy. Even within Moustafa’s group of friends, some will vote, thinking that elections, though highly problematic, are a necessary step forward; others will boycott, convinced that any elections under military rule are inherently illegitimate. In any case, they expect more violence.
For his part, Ferghaly is sticking close to the square. “We hope it will be peaceful,” he says. “But if it’s not, we’re ready to fight.”
Photo Credits: (Left to Right)
Top Row: Hassan Sharaf, Stephanie Figgins, Stephanie Figgins
Bottom Row: Hassan Sharaf, Stephanie Figgins, Hassan Sharaf