Commenting on a Brotherhood statement saying “We will not be in Tahrir on the revolution anniversary,” a friend wrote on Facebook, “You weren't in Tahrir on the original 25 January either.”
The Muslim Brotherhood’s absence from the party is one of the few similarities between proceedings on 25 January 2011 and during the 2013 redux. In 2011, during its awkward tango with the National Democratic Party, it announced that it would not be taking part in the demonstrations as an organisation, but that individual members were free to do so.
In 2013 it announced that it would not be taking part because it would be busy commemorating the revolution by planting trees and offering the Egyptian people vegetables at a discount price, which is apt, because it brings to mind a vulgar variation on the popular saying, “The world is like a cucumber: one day it’s in your hand, the other it’s in salad”, where salad is replaced with something anatomical. The MB have been thrusting cucumbers on us for six months now and very few have been anywhere near hands.
And so it was once more back to the squares and the streets, without the MB’s neatly bearded rank and file. The march routes and congregation points have remained the same, but the chants and placards have nearly all changed, as has the mood, and the march to Tahrir from Shubra felt like being reunited with a cantankerous pubescent teenager who you last saw as a mild infant.
The invective was all, inevitably, directed against the MB and its avuncular leader. There were very few articulated demands amidst this diffuse anger, perhaps because the situation has become so messy that neither the elegant simplicity of 2011’s unambiguous demand that the regime be brought down, nor 2012’s more complex attempts to fix a revolution that was already showing the first signs of going badly off course, will do.
The ambiguity was lent a surrealism by the presence of the Black Bloc, who made their grand debut in Egypt a few days ago.
Wrestling masks are always a strange sight, but particularly on a sunny Friday afternoon. Around 20 young men and a couple of women stood at the head of the march, arms linked, as in front of them what appeared to be their leaders, also in wrestling masks, flitted about nervously barking orders.
At one point they did some rhythmic clapping, but mostly spent their time attempting to tell bored photographers not to photograph them while standing in formation in matching wrestling masks. I attempted to have a chat with one of the leaders –– a nice young man who was wearing spectacles over his wrestling mask –– but he politely declined, saying that the group is “anti-media.”
I saw some of them later in the environs of Tahrir Square strolling about, still in their wrestling masks, like murderous flaneurs. One of their members was a paunchy middle-aged man in a shiny grey suit, another was a 10-year-old, indicating that this is not perhaps the spread of radical anarchism amongst Cairo’s restive masses but rather a penchant for wrestling masks, much as hard helmets were the big hit of 2011.
The Black Bloc were not much in evidence when the march was ambushed (according to an eyewitness) by denizens of the Souq al-Tawfiqeyya vegetable market, who availed themselves of building rooftops to welcome protesters with projected missiles.
This prompted a scene that was at once bizarre and indicative of just how confused everything is at the moment. Protesters began chanting “The people want the downfall of the regime” at their assailants. There was decidedly no regime involvement in the proceedings, so this was one group of civilians calling for the downfall of a regime at civilians above their heads. Maybe the chant was just a battle cry, but the polarization in Egyptian society that emerged after the revolution is more acute now than it has ever been in the past two years, thanks in large part to the crude “us versus them” rhetoric that currently passes as politicking.
The violence of yesterday’s protests, especially in Suez, is an articulation of a genuine seething, anger at this incompetent regime whose leader sees fit to address a nation in flux on Twitter at 2 am. But acts of civil disobedience – traffic blocking and Metro stoppages – are unlikely to go down well with the majority of Cairenes, who like general publics everywhere, only want a quiet life. This is particularly true given that there has been an aimlessness about some protests such as the largely ignored sit-in in Tahrir Square, a lack of vision, which if it hasn’t lost protesters support certainly hasn’t gained them new followers.
Reactionary or apathetic general publics aren’t essential in the great scheme of things, since it is always a minority that initiates change, but questions have to be asked about the effectiveness of these unchanging tactics, which are beautiful when they work but risk becoming staid, like coursing water that manages to wear an indent in a rock but then becomes trapped in a path of its own creation.
Sarah Carr is an Egypt Independent journalist and blogger.