The past month has seen the emergence of two very different approaches to street protests in Egypt.
On the one hand, the use of violence as a means of protest has gained renewed vigor. Port Said erupted into clashes at the end of January after death sentences were issued to 21 people for their role in the deadly football riots the year before. And a new, violent and mysterious protest group called the Black Bloc has emerged in the last few weeks whose predilection for street fighting and aggressive tactics has become well known.
On the other hand, however, resistance to President Mohamed Morsi’s government is evolving in other ways. Recently in Port Said, although violence has continued, there has also been a marked shift toward organized strikes and civil disobedience.
On the afternoon of January 31, a group of protesters wearing gas masks clashed with the police guarding the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo. While the riot police held their ground against the stone throwing, they charged the demonstrators down when they started throwing Molotov cocktails, sending scores of youths fleeing in every direction.
A member of the group — calling himself Kadir — explained their purpose. “We tried to take the hotel before but we had to leave before we could set it ablaze. We have returned to finish the job and the police mercenaries cannot stop us for forever,” he told to Think Africa Press. He wore the trademark Black Bloc uniform of black clothing and a gas mask.
Kadir’s group walked back to their tent on the edge of the Omar Makram Mosque. But as they approached it, Kadir spotted three men watching them from one of the makeshift cafés scattered around Tahrir Square. Kadir abruptly left his comrades and demanded to see the ID card of a clean cut man with a nice leather jacket sitting at the café. The man in the remained calm as the youths accosted him. “I’m just sitting here having a tea after I finished at the Mogamma,” he explained, pointing at the Soviet-style administration building which dominates the square.
The man’s companions tried to calm Kadir down but he became increasingly enraged. When he lit the Molotov cocktail he was holding, the man in the leather jacket quickly reached for his ID card. But Kadir threw the card back at him without even looking at it. “Forget the ID card, you look like a spy and here is what I do to the fascists who oppose the people,” Kadir exclaimed, abruptly smashing the Molotov cocktail on the ground a foot away.
Samer, a street vendor in Tahrir Square, who observed the scene commented: “This guy is one of the Black Bloc.” Samer sells surgical masks to protesters eager to ward off the effects of tear gas.
Though a loose franchise, the original Black Bloc had been organizing for months on the Internet before it finally made its appearance on January 25, the second anniversary of the start of the revolution which ousted Hosni Mubarak. Assembling down a side street, the group dramatically appeared en masse into the busiest part of Tahrir. At one point members put their arms on each other’s shoulders to maintain cohesion before taking their place at the front of clashes with the police on Qasr al-Ayni Street.
Members of the Black Bloc are instantly recognizable from their black masks and outfits but the group has another, less sartorial, trademark for which it has become equally notorious: This new organization has openly embraced violent confrontation with the police. Struggling to contain the group, Egyptian authorities have tried to paint them as pro-Israeli saboteurs and have labelled them a terrorist organisation.
The Black Bloc was blamed for the original raid on the Semiramis Hotel on January 29. Groups of protesters simultaneously converged on the hotel from several streets, overrunning the hotel’s meager security. Outside, other protesters meticulously smashed every window of the hotel within stone throwing range. The hotel’s staff desperately took to the social networking site Twitter and tweeted for help. Scores of youths from Tahrir Square and ambulances arrived on the scene to aid them.
An unidentified member of the Black Bloc told Think Africa Press that its members were at the hotel during the attack but that their role had been misinterpreted. “The Black Bloc did not participate in the attack on the Semiramis Hotel. Instead we contributed members of the Black Bloc in defense and coping with robbers and have handed them over to the police and hotel management,” the individual said.
Elsewhere that same night, a police vehicle was torched near the United States embassy in Cairo and a second vehicle was captured by rioters and driven into Tahrir Square and also torched. Youths in black masks posed for photos on the smoking hulk, threatening Think Africa Press for attempting to capture the scene on film. In the days following the attack on the Semiramis Hotel, Egyptian police announced the arrest of several Black Bloc members — but their aggressive tactics have continued.
Guns are also now increasingly common in confrontations between the police and rioters. In 2011, protesters around Tahrir Square refrained from using firearms. Those attempting to were often accosted by their fellow protesters. Yet on January 25 of this year, many frontline protesters held improvised shotguns and crude grenades made from little more than tape and pyrotechnics.
Sabotage and incidences of arson have also increased to new levels. Early in the morning of January 25, an arson attack at the Egyptian Railways Authority gutted several floors of the government building. Witnesses reported they had seen men on motorcycles fleeing the scene. On the same night, another downtown arson attack set off a powerful explosion when a gas tank is believed to have been ignited, rocking buildings several blocks away.
While violent tactics are increasing in Cairo, however, elsewhere in Egypt a new tactic of choice for confronting the state is emerging. Port Said has been synonymous with violence in recent months, with President Morsi even declaring a state of emergency in the region. In the last week or so, however, Port Said has switched to a new strategy: civil disobedience.
Media reports suggest that 10,000 people participated in a general strike which ground factories to a close across the city. A number of city officials, teachers and many of their pupils also joined in the industrial action. While operation of the Suez Canal remains unaffected, there have been attempts to block access to the railway and Port Said’s harbor, one of the largest on the Mediterranean.
“The recent violence in Port Said is portrayed in the state media in a way that is critical of the people of Port Said,” Max, a pharmacist who has been active in the strikes, told Think Africa Press.
We are portrayed as terrorists who throw Molotov cocktails and stones at the police. Thus, we have changed our tactics to organize action in order to improve our image and attract attention to the fact that there has been no justice for the people of Port Said following the verdict in the stadium riot case.
The April 6 Movement — arguably Egypt’s most organized opposition group — has been inspired by the example of Port Said and is active in the Canal cities where it hopes to spread the civil disobedience further. On February 19, the bakeries division of the Ismaïlia Chamber of Commerce announced it would join the strikers in March.
However, it may be difficult for civil disobedience to broaden out across the country. “While I see messages of support online from Cairo, Alexandria and the other Canal cities, I know it will be difficult to spread civil disobedience there because the people here are primarily inspired by the recent verdict,” said Max.
Indeed, attempts to export these tactics have led to mixed results. Recent efforts by protesters to shut down Cairo’s Sadat metro station — which lies immediately under Tahrir Square — led to fistfights between youths and commuters. Other travelers simply peered down the empty metro tunnels in the direction they were headed, before stepping off the platform, following the tracks into the darkness.
Nevertheless, while Egyptians wait to see how President Morsi can come up with ways to calm the streets in both Cairo and the Canal cities, there is no doubt his opponents’ tactics will continue to evolve.
This story first appeared at Think Africa Press, March 5, 2013.