Over the past 26 months, Egyptians have protested in public squares, outside state-run institutions and, more than once, at the gates of the presidential palace; each new setting bringing with it an escalation in dissatisfaction, violence, and demands.
Fed up with a government response seen as only comprising of heavy-handed tactics and the occasional provocative statements from a self-described thick-skinned president, protesters have now directed themselves toward the nation’s seat of power — a privately-owned office building in one of Cairo’s secluded districts.
The “Day of Reclaiming Dignity,” as Friday’s protest has been dubbed, began ominously enough, with the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Moqattam surrounded by scores of its members, as well as several cordons of Central Security Forces in preparation for protesters who, throughout the week, had been announcing their intention to burn the building down.
At the opposite end of the street from the headquarters and also waiting for the protesters, several vendors sell flags and drinks, and a few paramedics loiter between six parked ambulances. Calls for Friday prayer sound followed by sermons, also amplified: “Our enemies have an anger toward Egypt; we must use it against them,” “there are those who doubt sharia can be applied in the 21st century, but sharia is God’s law, created for any place and time.”
All crowds swell shortly after prayers; protesters arrive carrying handwritten signs (“there isn’t a drop of fuel in the country but we’ll still set fire to the Brotherhood”) and chanting, while outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, supporters recite their own variations on the protestor’s most popular slogans, as well as original ones like “our revolution is about decency, not graffiti”, “Islamic, Islamic, we will not be left out of the world” and, possibly the longest chant in history, a six-point call-and-response list of the president’s mostly metaphorical accomplishments (“he has purified us!”).
“You should have been here early in the morning,” Reda Ahmed, a vendor, says to Egypt Independent in a low voice. “They were bussing brothers in non-stop, bringing them from Minya. That building,” he nods toward the headquarters, “is about to burst with them.”
As he speaks, the chanting Brotherhood members form a large circle, spinning and holding each other’s hands. “Our Quran is our constitution, our Jihad is our path,” they drone.
Meanwhile, Central Security Forces occupy both sides of the five blocks and a public garden separating the opposing fronts, with approximately 500 soldiers scattered across various formations.
“Look at what they’re wearing,” Mohamed Alaa, a 23-year-old protestor says to Egypt Independent, as well as the soldiers standing within earshot. He then turns to them and gestures at the several layers of body armor they each wear. “I don’t remember you guys being dressed up this heavily outside the presidential palace.” They offer no response.
“What can they say,” Alaa turns back to Egypt Independent. “They have no choice, but they need to understand that we won’t let them stand in our way, and that this isn’t about them anymore.”
While a few protesters on the scene may disagree — there are occasional outbursts of chants against the Interior Ministry — it seems most of the crowd agrees with Alaa, as evidenced by how quickly and sternly those chants are stifled by other protesters, as well as the attempts at reasoning with the frontline.
“You’re our sons,” an elderly lady was seen pleading with a few stone-faced soldiers. “You’ve let yourselves be debased by the violence you’ve committed against us, but you’re still our sons.”
Intermittently, small groups of Brotherhood members move past the protesters, on their way to the headquarters down the street. On every occasion, their presence is announced through calls of “sheep!” from the protesters, many of whom chase the Brothers, bleating loudly. The lack of response only seems to provoke protesters further.
Gradually, arguments break out among the protesters over the purpose of their gathering.
“Why are you chanting ‘peaceful?’” an adolescent shouts in frustration. “Have you all forgotten why we’re here?”
“The police are on our side now, we don’t want to lose that!” comes the reply from a man later identified as Akram Saad, a resident of the area whose only concern of the day is “to avoid clashes.” The 32-year-old’s argument fails to convince, and he’s forced to rely on like-minded protesters to form a cordon of their own around those seeking more decisive action. There is pushing that threatens to turn worse until shouts from the group alert them to a car-full of Brotherhood members coming down the street. The protesters run towards it, the car reverses and swerves off, and the crowd chases it down the street.
Over on the Brotherhood side, its supporters have formed their own frontline, consisting, clearly, of the largest members of their group. They watch the goings-on at the protesters side keenly, until one of their own returns to assure them, “calm down, there’s not that many of them and they’re running around.” The frontline disperses as the same man asks, “Who gave the order for us to form a frontline, anyway?” to which another member replies, “I don’t know.”
At 2 pm, there is another outburst of excitement at the protesters’ side, and another rush down the street. A man has been pulled out of a passing bus, deemed to belong to the Brotherhood, and is being beaten on the street by a small group of protesters. There is immediate swarming around him, shouts of “kill him” and “don’t kill him,” pleas for self-restraint and calls to search the man, to hand him over to authorities. Throughout the debate, the beating never ceases and the man’s head is soon split open. He is carried to a building and protesters fight each other off until an ambulance arrives and the man’s protectors rush him into it. The ambulance drives off and the episode ends without a shred of evidence supporting it.
Across the street, three young men — who appear to be Brotherhood members, and later confirm so to Egypt Independent — watch the scene unfold with grim faces.
“This is civilized behavior?” one of them asks. “Killing each other when we’re all Egyptians?”
When faced with the suggestion that this violence is seen by some as a last resort and others as a response to the ruling party’s methods, the young man shakes his head. “This is not true. The government listens to the majority. If you want to know who the majority is, ask yourself who won the elections.”
“These people on the streets,” the 26-year-old Brother, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains, “they’re all acting for personal benefits, not national ones. If you have a complaint about the government, then express it, and give them the chance to fix it. Don’t get in their way and set fire to the country — that helps nobody.”
When this point of view is later relayed to two young boys — 16 and 17 — wearing ski masks and belonging to the now famous Black Bloc opposition group, they scoff and cuss. “My friend Nader got several rounds of birdshot in his face this week; he lost an eye,” the Black Bloc member says. “And he wasn’t at a protest, he was on his way home from school.”
“It’s oppression, and that’s not a way of life,” the second boy adds. “Not after the revolution. We won’t live like sheep, and we won’t be oppressed again. Otherwise, what did people die for? Why a revolution and all this mess, then?”
A few minutes later, two teenagers with regular scarves wrapped around their faces and bottles in their hands come running down the street, and hurl their bottles at the area where the protesters meet the CSF frontline. There is an outburst of chaos and screaming, and immediate scuffles. Two shots ring out and the scene quiets down before chants rise up again, this time addressing the president’s mother.
Protesters are caught off-guard again when, minutes later, a shot rings out from the residential building they and the CSF frontline are positioned under. The protesters respond by hurling rocks at its windows, two more shots follow from the building, leaving a cloud of smoke over a third-floor window. Two CSF officers appear on the roof, one floor above, and wave for protesters to calm down — one of the officers holds a handgun in his waving hand — and then they disappear and a child briefly peers over the same ledge. The protesters roar in fury, some attempting to raid the building, others pelting it with rocks, aiming for a specific window, but smashing a few others. The CSF soldiers on the ground remain motionless.
Two streets away, another battle ensues, one between the two sides actually in opposition. Marches planned throughout the day have begun arriving to Moqattam, the number of protesters quickly growing. They move past Moqattam’s central Nafoura Square and down Road 13, waving large white flags honoring martyrs on the two-year revolution, and beating drums. Ahead of them, hundreds of individuals run back and forth, breaking off chunks of the sidewalk for ammunition, carrying wounded comrades over their shoulders, hurling rocks and bottles at the approximately 300 Muslim Brotherhood members at the end of the street. There is no clear frontline, just an ebb and flow between the two sides. A knot of protesters forms—they have dragged over an opponent from the other side. An ambulance, one of many parked along the sides of the street, swerves in but the protesters refuse to hand over the man and instead, the ambulance is attacked and forced to drive off. The alleged member of the Brotherhood is only visible in glimpses of bloodstained limbs, and then disappears entirely as the protesters carry him away. The screams are deafening, between those justifying the man’s death, and those deeming it cold-blooded murder. At the end of the street, the man is set on the ground and beaten, picked up and beaten and eventually, tossed into an ambulance. As it drives off, there are disappointed remarks — “he’s still alive” — and two men are seen cheering a young boy, clutching a bag of rocks, for the “punishment” he bestowed on the man. The boy, not possibly older than 10, snarls, “I wanted that Muslim Brotherhood son of a bitch.”
Back at the other end of the street, the Muslim Brotherhood supporters have lost ground, retreating to the top of one of the many rocky hills on the outskirts of Moqattam. The rock pelting goes on, small groups of protesters, mostly adolescents, make their way up the hill, and fistfights ensue between them and the older, burlier Brotherhood members, who are easily outnumbered. On several occasions, protesters come running back, a battered and unconscious adult in their grip. They tumble down the rocky hillside, attract more protesters and provoke more arguments over the merits of mercifulness.
There are calls of warning among the protesters — their numbers well over 1,000, stretching upwards toward the heart of Moqattam — and sure enough, another group of Muslim Brotherhood members comes marching down a side street. The air thickens with rocks, fireworks, smoke; car windows are smashed, and one protestor is seen dousing three small trees with gasoline and setting fire to them, presumably to create some sort of smokescreen.
As the Brotherhood front retreats once again, a subgroup of approximately 20 protesters breaks off and rushes to meet them on the other side of the hill. Along the way, they are struck by rocks from the roof of a nearby building, and their attention diverted. They gather around the building, a crowd quickly follows, and they call for the “cowards” to “show themselves.” A teenage boy pops his head over the ledge and ducks back immediately.
“You’re coming down dead, you son of a bitch!” someone from the ground calls up. Rocks fly as infuriated protesters rattle the gates and climb the walls of Building 211 on Road 33. Simultaneously, someone draws the crowd’s attention to four buses parked further down the street. Moments later, they are in flames.
When asked about proof that the buses belonged to the Brotherhood, various replies are offered:
“There were pictures of Morsy inside the buses.”
“People said they belonged to the Brotherhood.”
“There were Brotherhood members in them, we pulled them out” — a claim that was immediately denied by several protesters within earshot.
From the roof of an adjacent mosque, Muslim Brotherhood members pelt protesters with rocks until the mosque is stormed. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood were being held inside as prisoners, and there was blood splattered across the courtyard floor. One hostage was held outside, a middle-aged man with open wounds all over his face, pleading for his life. Two protesters held him in a tight grip, ignoring the comments of the gathering crowd: “He’s the mosque’s superintendent, I know him.”
But it turned out he wasn’t. Given the chance to explain himself, the man swore he was a construction worker from Maadi who had only come to join the protest.
“Say ‘fuck the supreme guide’” one of his captors challenged him, referring to the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Fuck the field marshal,” the man said, dribbling blood, referring to the previously ruling Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
His captor slapped him. “The supreme guide, not the field marshal!”
“He can’t hear you,” another protestor explained to his peer. “He’s lost his senses. Let’s search him.”
At the mosque’s two main doors, the same debate was being held: forcing the hostages out versus preserving what remained of the sanctity of a house of God. While some protesters threw themselves at the doors, screaming for justice and the friends they had lost, a larger number pushed back.
“We need to be better than them,” a young man urged. “We need to show them we can be better than their Muslim Brotherhood, that we’re Muslims, too.”
“They’re not Muslim! Don’t insult our faith! God would disown the whole filthy lot of them!”
“Islam is mercy! We need to be merciful!”
“They’ve beaten the mercifulness out of us, they’ve turned our hearts to stone! How much longer?”
“We’ve cut the power and water to the mosque. We have them. They’re not going anywhere until we turn them in.”
“But they don’t belong in a mosque! They just blew one up in Syria and killed its imam! They don’t know anything about Islam!”
At the back of the mosque, nine men stand at a window, communicating with two of the captive Brothers. “How many of you are hurt, and how serious are the injuries?”
“We’re all fine, except for two of us and it’s not an exaggeration to say they’re dying,” comes the reply. “We’ve already called an ambulance but we can’t go out there. All we ask is to let it take the injured. You can keep us here, just convince the others to let the ambulance take our injured.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The sun has set and as the nine men talk amongst themselves, a call for prayer is heard from one of the protesters on the other side of the mosque. Two of the men leave and a third approaches the window. “Listen,” he says to the hostages. “We’ll turn the water on for you for five minutes so you can wash up and pray if you want. But do me a favor: when you pray, ask God to put some sense into us. Ask him to calm down people on your side and ours, ask him to save our country.”
Calm follows, but only at the mosque. Back at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters, CSF troops have begun firing tear gas on protesters, who have responded by setting fire to the tires they’ve brought with them in order to combat the blinding gases. The streetlights have gone dark, the only illumination coming from the flames. The protesters, regrouping through the smoke, begin to chant against the Interior Ministry and its dogs. This time, there are no calls for restraint.
Rationalizing the violence witnessed throughout the day, activist Alaa Abd El Fattah wrote on his Facebook page upon his return from the clashes in the early hours of Saturday that those protesting against the Brotherhood in the street do not see its rule as legitimate authority.
“Those in the street see that the authority is ignoring its Constitution and its laws, even though the Brotherhood is controlling them both. If you think our moves should respect the rule of law, or at least seek the rule of law, then you will have to find a way to pressure the state, the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to respect the law,” he wrote.