Tahrir Square, November 19, 2013.
As you enter Mohamed Mahmoud Street from Tahrir Square, a sign reads, “The borders of Egypt. Entry is prohibited for Muslim Brotherhood, Army and remnants of the Mubarak regime.”
Nada Ahmed, an independent activist, tells me, “Mohamed Mahmoud Street is especially our place. The Muslim Brotherhood went down to Tahrir Square, the army went down to Tahrir, only the real revolutionaries came here.” Among the groups here today are the Revolutionary Socialists, The Revolutionary Ultras and a newly formed-group called “Third Square,” who oppose both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule.
Situated at the entrance to the American University in Cairo's old campus, Mohamed Mahmoud street used to packed with students, darting back and forth across the street to print their packets to read before class, and couples in fancy cars breaking up and getting back together. All of that now feels as though it belongs to another world.
On November 18, 2011, the military brutally cleared a small group of demonstrators who had been injured during the January uprisings, and their relatives and supporters. Other protesters soon came to their aid and took to the streets to protest against military rule. What followed on November 20 was, at the time, the bloodiest single incident since the January 25 uprisings. At least 45 protesters were killed, many lost their eyes as security forces fired shot guns directly into the crowd, and footage emerged of several of them throwing protesters' bodies on trash piles near Tahrir Square. The significance of Mohamed Mahmoud street was forever changed on that day.
It is also the street that "connects Tahrir Square, the symbol of the revolution, and the Interior Ministry building, the symbol of the security state," as Mohamed Adam, an excellent journalist and friend, puts it. Since January 2011 the Mohamed Mahmoud corridor has sported an array of changing graffiti from pro-revolution, to anti-homophobia, to memorials to those killed in various protests. Today, all of that is painted over and a pink, orange and red camouflage pattern covers the walls.
It used to look like this:
Now it looks like this:
An odd crowd has come down to Tahrir today: the security forces called for people to come to the square to celebrate the birthday of General Abdel Fattah el Sisi. One member of this group tells me that the young revolutionaries are "dogs." Others are here to watch the Egypt-Ghana soccer game on large screens set up in the square. And finally, there are those who came to pay tribute to the peaceful protesters who were killed on this day two years ago.
Last night, the Ultras vandalized and partially destroyed an army-built monument to "the martyrs" in Tahrir, many of them killed by the security forces. Here is an excellent video by the Mosireen Collective showing the site's commemoration, then, 16 hours later, its destruction. I won't translate the slogans as some of them are not fit for printing here. Arabic speakers, consider this fair warning. But broadly, the demonstrators are calling for the downfall of state security.Here is another good one highlighting the hypocrisy of the monument. It opens with footage from June 30, in which protesters chant, "the police, the people and the army are one hand," followed by a montage of instances of army and police violence against protesters with a voiceover of a member of the armed forces calling for the commemoration of those who died. For the first time since the summer, there is a significant presence of protesters in the streets supporting neither the army, nor the Brotherhood. In August, the "Masmou'" campaign, meaning "heard" in Arabic, represented that third way but there has not been much of a street presence until now. The song in this video is beautiful and worth listening to: A new symbol has emerged: the three-fingered hand calling for bread, freedom and the purging of the Ministry of the Interior. People raise three fingers in defiance of the four-fingered Rabaa salute that has come to represent those who supported the Brotherhood sit-ins at Rabaa el Adaweya and el Nahdha Square that were violently dispersed on August 14. Street vendors weave among the demonstrators, selling knots of bread, eggplant and falafel, and cups of hot sweet tea. Nora, 20, wears a full-face veil and a denim backpack. She came in for the day by herself from the provinces to participate and plans to return before it gets dark. Nora participated in the January 25, 2011 uprisings. As for June 30 of this year she says, “it was a revolutionary event, but sadly it was hijacked by the military.” “Morsi’s trial is a theater,” she says, “not a trial.” She wants justice for those who were killed and for people at the Ministry of the Interior to be held accountable. But she fears the protests won’t stay calm. “The Ministry of the Interior will come and shoot live ammunition,” she predicts. Young men raise their middle fingers at an army helicopter that flies overhead. The stale reek of old tear gas settles at the back of my throat, a sharp vinegary taste on the air. Apparently security forces fired tear gas earlier in the day, but for the moment, the scene is peaceful. A few men stand on a platform leading chants calling for the downfall of the military regime and the Interior Ministry and calling for a non-military, non-Islamist third way. There are several loud bangs: Why people throw firecrackers in a place where they expect gunfire is beyond my comprehension. Downtown, the side streets off Tahrir, is filled with shuttered travel agencies: Aphrodite Tours, Baron Travel, Luxury Bazaar. It’s been a long time since tourists constituted the majority of the foot traffic in downtown. This evening, a more familiar sight comes into view: a march of several hundred, carrying 20-foot white flags bearing the faces and names of the people who were killed in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes two years ago. Next time I look fake coffins draped with Egyptian flags have been hoisted about the heads of demonstrators. There is even a coffin atop the half-destroyed monument that the army had erected in the center of Tahrir a few days ago. Earlier in the day, the square had been full of pro-Sisi supporters, but demonstrators tell me they had been chased away. Hanaa Mamdoh Said, a 45-year-old teacher from the Delta town of Tanta had come to the capital for the day hoping to celebrate the birthday of Egypt's de facto leader and Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah el Sisi. "We're upset" she says, "we came because we wanted to celebrate, but when we got here people were insulting him." As if on cue, chants of "Down, down with the military regime" start up a few feet away. Suddenly a group of about 300 young men comes running from across one of the bridges. In tracksuits and sneakers many of them look like soccer fans. When they reach the square they start raising their hands above their heads. Three fingers, now four. People around me whisper anxiously to one another: "Is this the Brotherhood? Have they arrived?" I am anxious too, but not because of fear of the Brothers. The entry of another faction would substantially increase the likelihood of violence. But the young men keep running, and when I asked someone who they were he said, "Movement 18"---a movement I hadn't heard of before. They're not with the Brotherhood and not with the army, he said; we're here to remember the martyrs. But I saw some holding up four fingers, I say. At first he tells me I must be mistaken, then he says, “well, people died at Rabaa too, but [these protesters] are not with the Brotherhood.” As I leave the square, I chat with the owner of a small shop selling cigarettes and phone credit. He tells me that he wants the emergency law to be reinstated, curfew and all, because there isn't any security. The odd thing is, I'm not sure people living under the curfew felt much more secure than they do now, particularly not those who remain in arbitrary detention after being stopped at checkpoints. Things are getting complicated here---again.