During a lull in Friday’s violence, protesters gathered across from a Moqattam mosque to buy refreshments from a kiosk through slits in the protective cardboard wrapped around it by its proprietor.
Despite the surrounding scenery — a rock-strewn street carrying cars with smashed windshields and trees with charred limbs — the crowd was in high spirits, having successfully fought off and captured a few Muslim Brotherhood supporters who had confronted them some distance from Nafoura Square.
“How many did you knock down?” a neatly dressed teenager asked a large older man resting on the sidewalk with a hook-shaped steel pipe in his lap.
“A few,” the man looked up. “I wasn’t counting.”
The teenager plucked his cigarette from his lips and, with his other hand, swung a wooden plank.
“I got 14,” he boasted. “One by one by one, right on the head.”
The man smiled wearily.
“Bless the youth,” he said.
The Egyptian revolution began amid chants of “peaceful” intentions, and it remained “peaceful” — even as police stations were routinely burned to the ground and clashes continued to quake the lawless outer governorates. The description remained valid because the then-ruling regime had been presented with an ultimatum, rather than a call for direct confrontation, although it immediately interpreted it as such.
And it became a badge of honor of sorts in the face of the state’s well-documented insistence on attacking protesters at their most vulnerable — whether sleeping, praying or hospitalized — and its disregard for the lives of its own citizens. Predictably, that government fell and, perhaps just as predictably, the one that followed has adopted the same heavy-handed tactics with zeal.
In the context of the ongoing revolution, the Moqattam clashes arguably mark a turning point. From the first cries of “peaceful” on 25 January 2011 to the “hunt a Brother" and "kill an infidel” rhetoric of last Friday, it’s easy to see something has changed. Who’s responsible for that change, though, remains less clear.
Khaled Abdel Hamid of the Popular Socialist Alliance believes “Everyone is to blame. Both sides need to realize that individual violence has never been a solution, nor will it fulfill the goals of the revolution.” he says.
But Abdel Hamid is also quick to point out that “the responsibility, undeniably, lies with the ruling regime. They are as responsible for the actions of their supporters as they are for the actions of their own apparatuses,” he explains. “And these ongoing efforts to marginalize and terrorize the opposition will only bring further instability.”
He says the Brotherhood and its supporters need to understand that “you cannot attack political activists and not expect certain repercussions.”
Human rights activist Ghada Shahbandar speaks of being mildly surprised that “after years of relying on us when they were being abused in prisons, the Muslim Brotherhood no longer seems to believe in human rights organizations. We’re hearing them repeat the previous regime’s rhetoric that we are ‘paid agents.’”
One of the biggest contributors to the deteriorating situation, she believes, is the Central Security Forces. Despite having a heavy presence Friday, with hundreds of soldiers securing the Brotherhood headquarters, the CSF failed “to respond to any of the calls made by Moqattam residents under attack in homes.”
They similarly showed little interest in preventing scores of people from physically assaulting one another, only breaking their cordon to launch an evening attack on protesters, she says.
Abdallah al-Kariony, a member of the Doctors Syndicate Freedom Committee and the Brotherhood, also believes the Interior Ministry should be held responsible.
“In its absence, people are coming up with their own substitutes, and the possible consequences of that are disastrous,” Kariony says. “For the ministry to stand by neutrally, as it has been doing throughout these clashes, is ridiculous and unacceptable. Whatever pressures being put on it that keep it from fulfilling its role must be rejected, and we need to have in place new, effective and realistic laws determining how people can protest.”
But Shahbandar thinks the overall justice system, or lack thereof, is also to blame. “This escalation can be traced to the total absence of justice since the first clashes outside the presidential palace, despite all the reports we have of the serious injuries, torture and detention perpetrated on the scene,” she says. “Had there been a proper investigation by the state or any punitive action, then the people’s anger would have been contained, and events like Moqattam might have not happened.”
While she “equally condemns the violence committed by both sides,” Shahbandar does not find it surprising. “This is what happens when you force people to take matters into their own hands,” she asserts.
For journalist and human rights activist Rasha Azzab, the current situation represents a problem that cannot be solved — one that instead must be un-rooted in its entirety. “The problem,” she says, “is the regime.”
Violence has plagued the country since President Mohamed Morsy took power, Azzab says, and “the only difference now is that the people are no longer willing to be victims. This violence has set us on the road to hell,” she says. “The people are facing a criminal authority with a thirst for blood and no understanding of justice, so individuals, and eventually group violence, become the only logical way to confront it.”
But for former Brotherhood member Islam Lotfy “Too many people are benefiting from the violence.” Lotfy, who left the Brotherhood in mid-2011 and became a founding member of the Egyptian Current Party, accuses both sides of playing up the attacks against them to “gain sympathy. And that in itself is an act of providing political cover to the violence,” he says.
This, he argues, has paved the way for other parties to benefit from the tumultuous situation as they see fit — whether using it as an opportunity to settle old scores or reap new rewards. “The result is we now have a very odd combination of people who are protesting or participating in the protests,” he says. “You have the angry individuals, the political opponents, but also the thugs, the street children, random security personnel.”
The product of this chaotic combination, he says, is “even more chaos. This is why you can’t justify this violence, even by looking at it as a last resort that the protesters were pushed to,” he says. “People that think that way are anarchists and they may be entitled to their opinion, but I’m opposed to the dismantling of the state.”
While alarmed at the “inevitable” fallout that Friday’s confrontation might bring, Abdel Hamid is more concerned over “the Muslim Brotherhood’s singular vision, and its inability to see alternative options. That’s why they’re alone now,” he says. “That’s how they’ve turned themselves into the counter-revolutionary movement they speak so much about.
“The lack of any political alternative is the reason why the language of violence has become so prevalent,” he adds. “It’s the drive behind this fresh wave of street clashes, this mentality that finds beating Muslim Brotherhood members in Moqattam to be some sort of victory.”
Lotfy also has little faith in current leaders, regardless of which side they’re on. He says a solution won’t be easy, with Islamists still bitter over their treatment under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the National Salvation Front focused on weakening Morsy’s legitimacy. “We need maturity and people who are capable of looking to the future,” he says.
For Shahbandar, the Moqattam clashes had “nothing to do with politics.” People are “disgruntled. They put a lot into the revolution. They expected higher standards. They expected, at the very least, to have a president who served all Egyptians,” she says. “Instead, they have the Muslim Brotherhood kidnapping those who speak out. The people are frustrated, and on Friday, they vented.”
But Kariony insists the focus must be on the bigger picture. “It’s difficult to run the country now, and while there might be some failures on the government’s part, the only way forward remains through the ballot box,” he says. “Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves living in a failed state, like Somalia, or a true dictatorship. Even if it brings horrible results, there are mechanisms within that framework of democracy in place to fix those problems.”
While doubtful of the ruling regime’s capacity or desire for changing its methods, Abdel Hamid believes the bloodshed will cease as soon as the opposition manages to “form a combined front, which is much harder than it sounds. It takes time,” he says.
And there are those who worry that time is a luxury Egypt can’t afford to waste. “Egyptians are not a violent people, but they’re quickly learning how to be,” Shahbandar says. “It’s a trait we’re acquiring, and unless we find a way to reverse it, it might come to define us. We have gone from protests, to street fights, to street wars.”
But Lotfy casts hope away from the traditional political class. “I believe that the younger generations are more capable of forgiveness and the ability to change,” he says. “I believe our hopes lie with them.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.