The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

More on Ultras, the Embassy, and the Friday of Not-Exactly-Putting-the-Revolution-Back-on-Track

The only surprising thing about the breach of the Israeli embassy in Cairo is that it never happened any time before in the past 30 years. In a city that abounds in isolated walled desert compounds, someone decided to put the most often marched-upon facility in Egypt in a quite ordinary apartment building in the heart of the city, whose defenses basically consist of however much force the security services/army choose to deploy on the street that particular day. Throughout the 1990s, at least once a year, students from nearby Cairo University staged a half-hearted attempt to storm the place. The hardcore "Ultra" football club fans who seemed to be a major contingent of yesterday's crowd may simply have been more persistant than your usual Cairo demonstrators -- partially because the self-styled "commandos of the revolution" (whose subculture is described by Ursula below) are used to fighting with police, and partially because they claimed to have one of their own dead to avenge, supposedly killed on Tuesday night post-match battle between Ahly club fans and police on Saleh Salem Road that started when police charged the stands in response to taunting chants.

So, rather than being satisfied with a few hours of melee with the police and military, they kept up the battle until late into the night, until eventually some got inside the building and up to the reception area. Meanwhile, other protesters tried to storm the Giza security directorate, reportedly after a police car leaving the scene ran down two demonstrators. The deaths were a tragedy, but I don't think that this quite constitutes an international crisis.

I was at the Tahrir demo earlier in the day, and although the Ultras were a heavy presence, and although small groups approached the nearby Interior Ministry from time to time, most of them responded pretty quickly to the "Peacefully! Peacefully!" chants from the crowd. In fact, part of the reason that the Ultras were there seemed to be that they wanted to be taken seriously as an aggrieved constituency -- a huge banner reading "Ultras are not criminals!" hung in the square. Ultras in the crowd said that while they were used to demonstrating, today they came specifically on account of their own grievances: specifically, police brutality, and the referral of civilians to military trials. (Activists following the military trials says that military prosecutors tend to pick on working class kids who aren't connected to one of the mainstream movement, so I'm guessing that includes a lot of Ultras.). "I used to come to Tahrir for the sake of the nation, but now for the first time I'm here as an Ultra," one Ahli fan said.

Ultra claims of victimhood wear a bit thin when it's pretty clear that a good number of them come to matches revved up for confrontation. On the other hand, from what I have heard, police at matches tend to treat all working-class fans as though they were riot-minded animals, so the Ultra who do want to fight the cops have a pretty good pool of resentment and humiliation to draw upon. I wasn't at the scene in Giza, so I don't know what caused the escalation of violence that has led to three deaths (at least one of a heart attack) and over 1000 injuries. But it seems pretty clear that what was unique about post-January Tahrir -- a mass, non-violent occupation of a public square -- got mixed up on Friday with some much older patterns of Cairo street conflict (Ultras vs cops, and marches on the Israeli embassy) and because the older patterns tend to be violent, they trump Tahrir in the news.*

The other issue obviously is the widespread belief that the purist expression of Egyptian nationalism is go smash something Israeli. I half-suspect that the embassy is where it is because it did divert crowds at Cairo University -- until a few years ago the main locus of demonstrations here -- from other domestic targets and other domestic issues. Since last night's demonstrations, Twitterers have been lamenting that the Israeli embassy violence has overshadowed the original demands of ending the military trials of civilians and ensuring an independent judiciary. Others have argued against the futility of demanding that a military junta renegotiate one of the country's key diplomatic agreements, while simultaneously attacking .  Pro-embassy-storming Twitterers have been celebrating this "victory", and a in a few cases, lashing back at those who argues that attacking a diplomatic symbol of Israel is a waste of time, accusing them of treason.

One of the more perceptive Tweets I've seen comes from Egyptian Thinker: "reminder: #Jan25 is a [increasingly] decentralized, grassroots movement which cannot, by definition, be controlled. Stop blaming each other." As a revolution progresses, and accomplishes some of the initial uprising's goals (ie, removing Mubarak) without accomplishing others (ie, a true overhaul of the police), it's pretty inevitable that revolutionaries will part ways, fall out over tactics, objectives, etc. This is particularly going to be the case when there's been a bit of malaise in the movement, and the number of longtime demonstrators who show up in Tahrir, who've carefully Tweeted out their demands beforehand, are not of sufficient mass to steer those groups (like the Ultras) who may have other agendas.

An uprising like Tahrir is an emotional state, not an institution -- it has no means of resolving internal disagreements, and when the initial sense of euphoria and unity wears off, it must eventually yield to a more formal body with a more formal decision-making process. In Egypt's case -- I hope -- that body is going to be an elected parliament.

Some critics of the path which Egypt's revolution has taken in recent months contrast the tactics of the original leftish/liberalish revolutionaries -- trying to force change by crowd action, futiley -- with those of the Islamists -- preparing for the elections, wisely. This is a bit of an oversimplification: so long as the unelected SCAF is in power, I think that there is a role for crowd action against bad SCAF decisions. They do appear to be a bit more reticient about putting civilians in front of military trials. But activists do need to realize that unless they force SCAF to step down -- rather unlikely, at this point -- at best they are going to provide a disincentive to take certain unpopular actions. They are not likely to force SCAF to embark on a wholehearted campaign of institutional reform, say, of the police, when SCAF's heart is clearly not in it. They are even less likely to force an unwilling military regime to reframe its relationship with a former adversary with whom it fought five destructive wars.

As for election preparation, some groups with their roots in April 6 and January 25 activism have been out canvassing for votes. Last month for example I went around with a group from the Adl party, running a clinic and distributing medicines in a poor district of Alexandria. The Adl party were clearly taking a leaf out of the Muslim Brothers' book, making sure that their activists are known and respected to as many people as possible before they start heavily pushing a political program. Also, protests in their own way are a form of election preparation. They keep the movements in the news, and thus on talk shows, which is a form of exposure. Whether or not this counterbalances the negative impact of being associated, fairly or unfairly, with street violence is open to question.

But in general, I think that this Friday ought to be yet another wake-up call to the revolutionary movement that if they want to have a lasting impact, they need to start thinking a little less about the streets and a little more about the ballot box. Also, someone needs to find another place to put the Israeli embassy.

* For the record, not all Ultras behaved like hooligans, and I don't think all of them were set on violence. I witnessed one young Ahly fan take in a suspected police provocateur grabbed by Tahrir security, bring him into a makeshift shelter under the speakers' stage, make sure he got enough water, and sent him on his way. The suspected baltagi lacked any ID or anything at all in his wallet other than a laywer's business card, had a newspaper stuffed rather strangely into his pants (as though it was concealing a knife), and appeared to have some sort of mental disability. He may have been some hapless young guy attracted to the crowds who ran afoul of a misunderstanding. Or, some police officer may have found a vulnerable kid, paid him some cash, and ran him into Tahrir knowing that it would stir things up. It's convenient for activists to blame everything that goes wrong during demonstrations on provocateurs. But, provocateurs may well be a factor.


Steve Negus6 Comments