The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The football protests, day two

This morning I took a ride only my bicycle just before prayers to check out what the situation was in Downtown Cairo. I got all the way the the HQ of the interior ministry, passing through checkpoint after checkpoint (and by much barbed wire) in the whole area surrounding it, which has many government buildings. It seems an area roughly the size of nine blocks has been cordoned off to traffic (see map), with the Interior Ministry at its center. Around these streets are mostly riot police, but close to the ministry itself there are also a bunch of army APCs. On streets around the ministry, nearby shops had broken windows and signs of having been looted – despite that they were on the side of the police rather than the protestors.

The marches towards the ministry did not restart until after prayers, and were in full swing by the afternoon. When I ventured down Mansour Street, which leads to Lazoghly Street where the ministry is located, it was packed and a familiar scene of an Egyptian riot/protest: pavements upturned, the air acrid with tear gas, hundreds of youth launching into impromptu sloganeering, and a general atmosphere of exhilaration and anxiety. Except this time there were also large flags of Cairo's two main football clubs, al-Ahly and Zamalek, whose normally rival fans had united against the police. As someone said on Twitter, Mansour St. is the new Mohammed Mahmoud St., and I saw very much the same kind of bravado, anger and desire for martyrdom I'd seen in November.  (You can see a short unedited video I shot of the crowd there at the top of this post.)

The biggest difference is perhaps that for now the police are less aggressive than in November they are firing tear gas canisters and birdshot, but I  have not seen rubber bullets or live ammo being shot in Cairo, although that's not the case in Suez were two protestors appear to have been shot. They seem to be under instructions not to escalate the situation, and on TV were even shown trying to urge the protestors to stop by shouting – in a bizarre reversal of positions – "kifaya, kifaya" ("enough, enough"). Kifaya of course was the battle cry of the opposition to Mubarak since 2004. I wonder how long this restraint will last.

One aside about the tear gas attacks: as well as being pretty unpleasant, they provoke pretty dangerous behavior in the protesters: small flash-stampede that can suddenly see you carried away uncontrollably in a crowd. I am 1.85m and, with my heavy protest boots on, nearly 100kg, but I lost control briefly as the crowds pushed back. Here's a little tip: wear your scarf tightly or take it off, mine was pulled on during the mini-stampede and it can strangle you.

I'm not sure were this is all going, but my intuition is that there was tremendous anti-SCAF sentiment yesterday (and sympathy for the al-Ahly fans who died in Port Said) it may not last. We're already seeing the tone change on TV. Yesterday it was remarkable to see an emerging consensus towards an accelerated transition back to civilian rule, which only a few days ago seemed to be the losing argument (against the parliamentary majority) of the revolutionary movement. The danger is that this emerging consensus evaporates as frustration with protests mount, in part because so many of those on the front lines on Mansour St. (as opposed to the many more in Tahrir Sq. and elsewhere) seem so intent in fighting with the police and seizing one of the best-defended fortresses in Cairo.