Egypt: When Frustration Becomes Violence

More than two years after Hosny Mubarak’s ousting, thinking about the so-called Egyptian revolution the first thing that comes to anyone’s mind is the Muslim Brotherhood. Images of clashes between protesters and police forces are probably the only thing that our memory can recall of the Egyptians’ struggle for freedom and social rights. But where have images of people peacefully demonstrating gone? Where are the proud people overcoming social and religious differences in the name of Egypt? Where is the lesson they have been teaching the rest of the world?

The undeniable change of attitude regarding Egyptian protestors, has affected the way in which the Egyptian revolution is perceived by the world’s collective imagination and by the public opinion. Egyptian people themselves seem to have lost that pride and hope that gave them the strength to end a dictatorship, which amounted to the completion of just the first step among many more necessary to achieving their democratic goals.

But what happened to the aspirations standing at the foundation of people’s original mobilisation?

According to a survey led by the Pew Research Centre, the mood among Egyptian people two years after the popular uprising that freed them from 30 years of dictatorship, is overall, negative; 62% declare that they are dissatisfied with the way in which things are going in the country, 30% think that Egypt’s condition actually worsened after Mubarak’s fall, and 39% think that social conditions are basically the same as during the “Pharaoh’s” era.1

Nothing has changed. That’s the overall feeling among Egyptian people. This goes some way to explaining the shift from peaceful behaviour to the violent clashes that have characterised the last two years of mass mobilisation.

In 2012, when the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) was still in power and the confusing game of the presidential elections had not even taken shape yet, comments and discussions were focused on the revolution’s achievements, on the “yet to be fulfilled” demands of the people and on the nature of the uprising itself. Due to the on-going unrest, the people continued to demonstrate and the violent events that followed deeply affected Egypt’s political and social transition. On 25th January 2013, during the second anniversary of the “revolution” people had no doubt that the symbolic date should have been used to re-start the continuous unrest throughout the country. Egyptians took to the streets with the aim of changing Muhammed Morsi’s policies and carrying forward the same demands of the past two years (bread, freedom, and social justice).

One year after Mubarak’s fall, the question was whether to celebrate or protest in the streets of Egypt. The Egyptian population was divided between the will to commemorate what so far has been the most important achievement in their contemporary history, and the disappointment generated by the unfulfilled demands of the revolution. It can be argued that celebrating the revolution on its first anniversary, would have almost meant to recognise that it was completely over, whereas the common feeling was that the revolution was still on-going (al-thawra mostamerra), and that the end of Mubarak’s regime could represent only the first achievement on Egypt’s way towards democracy and social justice. On the one hand, the SCAF, in power on January 2012, were declaring a day of national celebration to distract people’s attention from its military rule, on the other hand different groups of activists thought that the only way to commemorate the victims of the revolution, and to state that they would not give up their demands, was to keep on protesting.

As a result, on 25th January 2012 many stages were set in Tahrir Square (Cairo) by different groups. On one side of the Square the Muslim Brotherhood was celebrating with choirs and coloured balloons, while, on the other side, cultural activists from al-Fan Midan, a cultural event that has been going on monthly in Abdeen Square (Cairo) since the revolution, set their stage both to commemorate the martyrs of the revolution, and to make clear that revolutionary feelings were still alive. As Ayman Helmy, one of the organisers for al-Fan Midan told us: “Many people were confused. Should we celebrate the heroic deaths and what some people see as achievements? Or still the time to celebrate is yet to come? At the end, a big sector of protestors said that we should go out to mark the day, our day, and to affirm that revolution is still going on.”2

Hence, the sense of dissatisfaction was already in the air one year after Mubarak’s overthrow. And it is this same discontent that kept on spreading and growing among the people of Egypt. Events that contributed to exacerbate the situation from a political, social, and economic point of view, are innumerable. Among them, the Maspero massacre, in October 2011 and the Port Said clashes between Ultras and security forces in February 2012, can be considered as turning points in Egyptians’ behaviour. The Maspero demonstrations resulted in 28 casualties, while Port Said clashes saw the deaths of 74 people. In Ayman’s words: “Since then, life never became the same.” These events contributed to feed the feeling of frustration and discontent among Egyptians, who not only saw their demands unmet by the forces in power, but were actually starting again to recognise in them the enemy to fight. Consequently, the aim became to fight the security forces to re-affirm people’s rights, no matter how, no matter where.

The second anniversary of the revolution did not witness better scenes. On 25th January 2013 there was no space left for celebrations. After a Friday of protests, rage erupted on the 26th, after the court sentenced to death 21 ultras for being responsible of the previous year’s clashes in Port Said, and acquitted seven police officers. Again people felt betrayed. The sentence sparked a series of violent demonstrations in the Sinai peninsula as well as in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria, that led the first democratically elected president of Egypt to deploy the army in Ismailiyya and Port Said to stop the violence. Within the same wave of rage the streets of Egypt became impassable. Clashes went on for several days after the first spark ignited and sexual harassment, an already existing problem, became a daily occurrence.

Since then, in response to the government’s political moves, such as the proclamation of a decree giving the president power over the judiciary among others, people kept on taking to the street in an increasingly violent way, pouring out their frustration in an obviously ineffective aggressiveness. Indicative of the growing and wide spreading rage, is the emergence of anarchist groups such adopting so-called black block tactics which, counting on people’s support, were wilfully attacking the police forces and the main symbols of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power. All these violent events should be taken as the expression of Egyptian’s frustration, a feeling generated by the disappointing awareness of the clear failure of the peaceful demonstrations. Still, the Egyptians’ dissatisfaction with the political and social situation must be seen as the continuation of what people started two years ago.

The substantial difference between what happened, what is currently happening in the streets of Egypt, and what led to the overthrow of the old regime needs to be underlined. The 2011 uprising began and continued with non-violent intentions (without ignoring the ferocious outcome due to the clashes between the police and the protesters). People gathering in Midan el Tahrir worked to build a peaceful atmosphere and to convey this non-violent attitude to the rest of the world. Now, considering the latest events, clashes are becoming a daily occurrence throughout the country, with people deliberately and openly using violence as a means of protest. This radical change of attitude can be attributed to a general feeling of frustration, resulting from two years of unanswered questions and disillusioned hopes.

For these and many more reasons, the already fragile celebrations characterising the first anniversary of the Egyptian uprising have clearly been replaced by a sense of frustration and rage, identifiable in the latest outcomes of this unbalanced political and social situation, which is likely to become even more unstable.

Evidence of the widespread frustration and of the dramatic deterioration of the Egyptian political situation, was clearly expressed by the millions of people who filled up Cairo’s streets on the 30th of June. On the same day, one year ago, President Morsi was taking office after what has been considered the first democratic election since the toppling of Hosni Mubarak. However, after one year, Midan el Tahrir was full again. After one day of demonstrations with the largest number of participants in Egypt’s history, the National Salvation Front, the main opposition force to President Morsi’s government, urged Egyptians to keep on protesting “peacefully and with a vengeance” until Morsi’s resignation. On the same day, on Monday 1st of July, general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, head of the Egyptian military, issued the ultimatum that 48 hours later led to the removal of Muhammed Morsi. A measure well received by the crowds in the streets, which started celebrating the second presidential overthrow in less than three years, even before what has been controversially defined as a military coup took place.

As if it was to prove that Egyptian voices could still be heard when peaceful and proud, for at least three days the same feeling of freedom dominating the Egyptian scene during the 2011 uprising invaded the country once again. However, the dream did not last long.

After the tempory suspension of the constitution and the designation of Adly Mansour, the chief justice of the constitutional court, as head of the transitional government, the situation in Egypt’s streets worsened dramatically. At the time of writing, dozens of people have died all over the country in clashes between Morsi’s opponents and supporters, and in attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood’s protesters implemented by the Army “in defence of the people’s will”. What is taking shape on the streets is no longer the outcome of disillusion and desire for change. In many analysts’ opinions, the demonstrations by Morsi’s supporters are legitimate as the democratically elected president was removed before the end of his term by what can technically be described as a coup d’etat. In their opinion, for as controversial as Egypt’s political situation can appear from the outside, their frustration is not less valuable than the revolutionaries’ disillusionment.

However, after a successful revival of revolutionary feelings and peaceful hopes, again what is left is violence and rage. Egypt’s democratic transition is following a violent and uncertain path of which the main feature seems to be people’s dissatisfaction. Therefore, the feeling of frustration which has prevailed among Egyptian people for almost three years is unlikely to leave Egyptians’ souls anytime soon, unless the varied and different needs of the population are met.

 

1 http://www.pewglobal.org/files/2013/05/Pew-Global-Attitudes-Egypt-Report-FINAL-May-16-2013.pdf return to main text
2 Interview held on June 7th 2013, London. return to main text

 

Coptic Christians march on the first anniversary of the 2011 Maspero massacre, October 2012 when the military fired on unarmed protestors leading to the death of 25.

An Egyptian protester assisting a wounded man during clashes between protesters and riot police near the state security building in Port Said, Egypt, on March 6 2013. Port Said has been a focus for violence since January of that year, with people staging angry protests over death sentences handed down to some residents in connection with a football stadium riot in which more than 70 people died last year.

Anti Morsi protestors in Tahrir Square on June 30th 2013.

Muslim Brotherhood supporters carry a wounded man during anti-military demonstrations that resulted in the death of 42 near Army HQ, 8th July 2013.

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi shout slogans while holding posters of Mursi and copies of the Koran during a protest in Cairo on July 22nd, 2013.

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Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)