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."

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."

The man in the blue suit refused to give his name, but felt strong in his case. "That other Jewish spy also claimed he was a journalist," he said, referring to an American former Congressional intern recently arrested on charges of spying for Israel, who says he is merely a law student at Emory University.

Once we arrived at the police station, the officers there took a different approach. They thanked the vigilantes for their, well, vigilance, said they would investigate, and asked them to leave. Ten minutes later, the duty officer told me to go home.

"Don't go back to Tahrir today, because if those guys see you again they'll make trouble for us," he said. He offered an extra warning to my translator: "You're an Egyptian. Be patriotic. Take care about what this man writes about our country."

By late afternoon the fighting in Tahrir had subsided, but it was some of the grossest violence since the infamous "Day of the Camels" on February 2. It's still impossible to answer the most important question about the fight between demonstrators, police, and thugs: To what extent are the authorities complicit in orchestrating the violence, and which authorities are responsible?

Sadly, though, it's clear that several nasty, violent groups persist.

First, the central security forces (also know as riot police) have lost none of their old swagger and tactics, as displayed by the relentless barrage of tear gas and truncheons they have unleashed on demonstrators since Tuesday evening.

Second, thugs are all over the place. In pre-revolutionary Egypt, the thugs (baltagaya in Arabic) formed a distinct, if loosely controlled, constituency in the police state. Paid and commanded by ruling party politicians or the police, they would harass voters, break up public meetings, and beat demonstrators. They have occasionally surfaced since Mubarak stepped down, but have been out in droves in Tahrir since Tuesday.

Third, paranoia and xenophobia are reaching a crescendo. Political reforms have stalled, old regime figures still have not gone to trial for the murders with which they are charged, and the police and army seem to have consolidated their grip on power. The revolutionary opposition is mercilessly fragmented. Naturally, public sentiment has turned to scapegoats, outside agitators who supposedly want to keep Egypt weak. Culprits named today in Tahrir include the IMF, the United States, the Jews, the media, and myself.

The man in the light blue suit had said he was a former military officer, and he carried the haughty mien of a man with power, accustomed to commanding crowds and others. The flavor of the old regime ran not only to capricious power, but a dash of delight in humiliating the common citizen. The crew that joined him in my temporary detention included a few slack-jawed characters who seemed standard-issue thugs, but also a few well-mannered protesters who treated me with respect but also some suspicion. Some protest leaders have worried that their support in the street is vulnerable because of this mix of rage and paranoia.

"We're through listening to political parties!" one man screamed as he ran through the square toward the riot police. "From now on, we'll just stay in Tahrir."

These clashes began after a memorial service for January 25 martyrs went awry -- as Ursula Lindsay at The Arabist explains, the result of heavy-handed police tactics, agent-provocateurs among the martyrs, or both. Whatever else is going on, there's a deep and genuine sense of betrayal among the martyrs' families, who have not seen any serious attempt to hold the police accountable. Add to that the widespread hatred of the police among Egyptians, and the police's own desire to regain its dominant position, and you have quite a volatile mix.

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