Paranoia and Rage Surface in Cairo Riots

The worst violence since Mubarak's resignation reveals a splintering opposition, tightening police presence, and uncertain future



CAIRO, Egypt -- The city is combustible. On Tuesday night, seemingly out of nowhere, fighting engulfed Cairo at a pitch not seen since the Days of Rage in January and February that forced President Hosni Mubarak to resign.

A group of families had gathered in another neighborhood to celebrate the martyrs killed during the revolution; no one knows who organized the event and who attended. No one knows exactly what happened next either -- just that police tangled with the families, who then decided to march on the Ministry of the Interior in downtown Cairo. After nightfall, the fighting took on a momentum of its own. Hundreds of demonstrators massed at the interior ministry and later in Tahrir Square. Riot police shot tear gas and, according to protesters, rubber bullets. Demonstrators threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. The fighting surged on throughout the night, unabated.

By noon on Wednesday, several thousands of demonstrators were still battling the riot police. Reinforcements had arrived, including 20 ambulances. The fighting raged on Mohammed Mahmoud, the spur street off the southern end of Tahrir Square leading to the interior ministry. Men on ambulances ferried the hundreds of wounded back to the ambulances. The sting of tear gas stretched half a mile from the clashes, enveloping the entire square. Helpful men offered vinegar and Kleenex to alleviate the pain of inhaling the gas.

I was eager to talk to some of the martyrs' families, find out how the whole melee began, and see how they felt it would affect their cause. Men and women huddled in knots, ignoring the tear gas, arguing about whether these clashes would undermine the revolution by alienating a wider Egyptian public that is tiring of protests. None of them were relatives of martyrs. Many of them were wary.

"I've been in Tahrir since January 25, and a lot of the faces I see out here today are not the usual faces," said a 27-year-old accountant named Mahmoud. "A lot of them look like thugs."

"We're through listening to political parties!"

In fact, there were dozens of burly men, many of them with missing teeth, wearing tight clothes and noticeably disinterested in political conversation. One of them brandished with a smile two "Made in America" tear gas cartridges. Soccer hooligans -- who had played a key role during the revolution -- were also out in number, fired up because Egypt's two most important teams, Ahly and Zamalek, were scheduled to play each other Wednesday night.

Finally I found one of the martyr's relatives, whose calls for justice had helped spark the whole showdown. Magdy Iskandar sat cross-legged in the middle of the street, wearing a baseball cap and purple t-shirt, a placard at his feet decorated with poetry and slogans. "I will not shave or accept condolences for my son until I see Hosni Mubarak and [former interior minister] Habib El-Adly hanged," he said. His son had been killed by a stray bullet on January 28, Iskandar said, and he had come to believe that Egypt's post-Mubarak military rulers had no interest in justice. "It's just a big act," he said. "All they want is to keep the military in power longer."

That's when our interview was cut short by a stout, elderly gentlemen in a light-blue summer suit. He had white hair, a white moustache, and wide-eyed, slightly manic stare.

"How do we know you are a journalist?" he sputtered, gripping my arm with surprising force. A second man, more burly, grabbed my other arm, and they pulled me away. I showed my Egyptian press card, which the blue-suited man ripped from my hands and never returned. "You are a Jew!" he said. "A spy. We will take you to the police."

About a dozen men and one woman executed my "citizens arrest," some of them taking a softer line than the ringleader. "I am sorry," one of them said to me, "but we have to be careful."

Presented by

Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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