Was the Egyptian revolution really non-violent?

As attention turns to the anniversary of the 25 January revolution, questions arise about the nature of the Egyptian revolution and what is required for its success.

The questions are: for a revolution to succeed, can it be completely peaceful and nonviolent? When you are trying to overthrow a heavy-handed security-based regime that cracks down on dissent in a violent manner, can you succeed using only nonviolent means?

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was universally celebrated as peaceful in nature, especially with the media spotlight on Tahrir Square and the consistent and strategic chanting of “selmeya” (peaceful) that rang out from the crowd. Yet numerous police stations and buildings associated with the ruling National Democratic Party were burned on 28 January and fierce battles occurred in Sinai and Suez. Flames looming in the skies of different Egyptian cities could be seen as a symbol of the regime’s fall.  

The fighting continued past 28 January. Many ask if this revolution would have succeeded had Tahrir Square fallen to pro-regime thugs during the Battle of the Camel on 2 February. Protesters valiantly fought back throughout the night to keep the square.

The uprising of 2011 is often idealized as nonviolent, and to a great extent that is true, but since then and as violence toward protesters increases, there is a popular perception that the revolutionary on the street has changed: that there is a more violent atmosphere during recent events and that the revolutionaries of post-25 January are no longer the clean, middle-class faces associated with the 18-day uprising.

This perception overlooks the fact that violence broke out on 25 January in different places throughout the country. Shehab Bassam was one of the earliest protesters to make it to Tahrir Square. “They started tear gassing us right away so we threw stones at them, which they threw back,” he says. Bassam was hit in the head with a rock that day and had to get four stitches. He was detained on 28 January.

“28 January was an extremely violent day,” says Hosni Nabil, whose brother, Ali, was killed that day in downtown Cairo. “We paid a dear price for this revolution, and it wouldn’t have succeeded otherwise.” Ali lived downtown and initially went to find his other brother Mostafa, who was participating in the protests. He was shot as he carried injured protesters to a field hospital.

The deaths that involved a measure of violence reinvigorated revolutionary fervor during the 18 critical days that led to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. Many revolutionaries today credit the sacrifice of these martyrs for the fact that the revolution continues.

Ali was a house painter who supplemented his meager income by doing random jobs in his neighborhood. He is an example how popular perceptions of the revolutionaries have been skewed, so that the martyrs are idealized as educated, internet-savvy, white-collar types.

This perception is encouraged and utilized by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to discredit protesters, such as during the November battles on Mohamed Mahmoud Street and the December clashes in front of the cabinet building. In their press briefings after these violent events, the SCAF claimed that the protesters were actually thugs. The insinuation is that these protesters aren’t the original type of protesters, the true revolutionaries who were in the square last January.

The discourse of thug versus revolutionary is also brought up during the trials of policemen accused of killing protesters. A certain media discourse, aided by the defense of these policemen, has purported that those who have been killed near police stations were thugs who were shot in self-defense.

Mohamed Gamal Bashir, a former member of the football group Ultras White Knights and known in online social networks as “Gemyhood,” unpacks this image.

“Let’s not forget what happened in the days between 25 January and 28 January, this glossed over part of history,” he says. “There were constant clashes in Omraneya for example, and there were people in Talbiya trying to get to the Foreign Ministry. The fighting continued long after the political elite were tear-gassed out of the square on 25 January.”

Bashir speaks of the “harafish,” whom he defines as youth with no prospects who often skirt the edge of the law. He claims that their actions led to the revolution’s success. He says that they burnt police stations in their neighborhoods in response to decades of oppression by police against the poor.

“The power of this revolution came from these harafish burning police stations and from the collapse of the Interior Ministry. That was utilized by the political elites who centralized the struggle in Tahrir Square. Without this confrontation, the revolution wouldn’t have been possible, and every police station was burnt to the ground because people have been dying inside them for years. There is a veneer of nonviolence but no one saw the battles in Suez and elsewhere — How is it peaceful when people are dying in the streets?” Bashir says.

“People don’t understand what nonviolent resistance means,” Bashir continues. “It means not taking up arms and revolting, like what happened in Libya and Yemen, where uprisings began like the one in Egypt but people eventually took up arms. It doesn’t mean not responding to violence.”

But some say that nonviolent resistance means not responding to attacks by security forces. Protesters faced criticism during the clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud for continuing to fight with police forces after the latter attempted to forcibly evict a sit-in.

Essam Saber died on Mohamed Mahmoud, shot in the head as he was pulling injured protesters out of the fray. Saber hailed from Imbaba and worked in advertising.

“Essam was a fighter who didn’t accept injustice, a young man who cared about his country and defended it. He is a huge loss for us, and we want justice from those who killed him,” his uncle says.

Again, this shows that those who were involved in the clashes are not necessarily politicized and do not fit the archetype portrayed in the media. Bassam recalls that at the beginning of 25 January, “there were all kinds of people there, even people I knew who I hadn’t seen in years. None of them were into politics. No one expected this to happen. It wasn’t arranged, people just headed down [to Tahrir] because they had nothing to lose.”

Yet Abdel-Rahman Samir from the Revolutionary Youth Coalition feels that the protesters lost some public sympathy during the clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud because some were responding in kind to violence.

“We won some media solidarity but we lost sympathy from citizens. Last January we lost a lot of lives, but we didn’t win by attacking the Interior Ministry — we won by staying in the square. When you are attacked but remain peaceful you manage to get more support on the streets, and this creates greater pressure.”

Samir says that nonviolent resistance is the most successful revolutionary method, and prior to January 2011 some young revolutionaries studied the examples of countries such as Chile where nonviolent resistance was successful. Members of the April 6 Youth Movement faced heavy criticism for attending a workshop in Serbia about how to peacefully overthrow dictatorial regimes.

Similarly, Sherif Younes, history lecturer at Helwan University sees that nonviolent resistance is the best approach in a place like Egypt. He points out that there is a difference between the intensity of politically-related violence in Egypt and other countries in the region, such as Iraq, where violence is more intense.

"In Egypt, the murders of Khaled Saeed and Sayed Bilal or the Two Saints Church bombing were huge events, but in Iraq, for example, they might not resonate as much," he says. "So there is a difference in the extent of violence."

Younes also contends that the Egyptian revolution was not an organized one and was carried out by regular citizens who were less likely to be carrying arms. Weapons are generally uncommon in Egypt except in the south.

However, violence against protesters has increased since the first 18 days. Younes believes that this trend has adversely affected the military’s standing.

"A confrontation such as that in Libya or Syria usually stems from a schism within the military ranks, because it is the military that has the firepower. The military did not attack protesters in January for fear of schisms emerging within the ranks," he says. "So it couldn't have happened any other way. The military has increased violence recently but has lost politically as a result. That is why it is now in its interests to hand over power as soon as possible."

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