PEACE AND FIRE: Diversity of Tactics in the Egyptian Revolution
“The idea of a peaceful revolution is a bit of a myth. We like to tell ourselves that nonviolent protest did the job, but there was a heck of a lot of violence, too”
- Blake Hounsell, editor at Foreign Policy, quoted in the New York Times Lege blog, June 30, 2011
“yo spain egyptian people want to share a secret with u, peaceful revolt is for tv, real revolutionaries beat the hell out of police”
- tweet from Alaa Abd El Fattah, dissident Egyptian blogger, 10:21pm, May 27, 2011 (1)
On February 1st, Human Rights Watch emergency director Peter Bouckaert presented evidence of “several cases” where undercover police were among the looters who attacked the National Museum during the first week of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. On this basis, the director imagined that President Hosni Mubarak had a plan to provoke violence among the demonstrators. “It would make sense that he would want to send the message that without him, there is no safety.”
Bouckaert might have been correct as far as the National Museum looting goes. But with his broad speculations, the director helped foster a myth that spread rapidly. It can be summarized as follows:
'The struggle to ouster Hosni Mubarak was an overwhelmingly nonviolent one. Exercising unshakable patience, the Egyptian protesters suppressed the counter-productive, alienating impulse to strike back that surely would’ve brought a premature end to their revolution. To the extent that there were militants and vandals among the resistance, they were agents provocateurs planted by the regime.'
There is one problem with this narrative: It is almost the exact opposite of reality. For protesters did strike back at the police in Egypt, and they struck back furiously. According to eyewitness reports to Al Jazeera, the New York Times, and other media outlets, not only were street fighters a legitimate and substantial part of the revolution, they were likely the factor most responsible for its success.
In the name of solidarity with those who fought back, and basic honesty with ourselves, we need to set the record straight. Here are six reasons why the Egyptian Revolution must be regarded as a militant insurrection, neither wholly militarized, nor completely nonviolent.
1. PITCHED BATTLES WITH POLICE APPEARED FROM THE FIRST DAY OF MASS PROTEST
The Cairo marches on January 25, the first day of the revolution, began peacefully and orderly, some with predetermined routes. But they ended up with improvised marches snaking throughout the city center, punctuated with violent clashes with the police.
Beginning at around noon, two hours in, protesters began to rebel against police corralling the march. Some chose nonviolent tactics, including sitting in the street. Many others chose to break through police lines and march towards the Nile. At 2:31 pm, Guardian reporter Jack Shenker filed an audio report, “Young men wearing scarves over their mouths are throwing stones and bricks while the police are firing tear gas at the demonstrators and using water cannon.”
At 3 pm, the Mubarak government shut down Twitter for the first time, but it did nothing to slow down the protesters. At 3:40 Shenker reported, “thousands who have occupied Cairo's central square are pouring forward towards the parliament building, prompting running battles with armed police…A few moments ago a huge charge from demonstrators sent the riot police running…” Two protesters and one police officer died in the clashes.
That night, the occupation of Tahrir Square commenced. A pamphlet distributed in the square that night stated, "Egyptians have proven today that they are capable of taking freedom by force and destroying despotism." [The Guardian News Blog, January 25, “Protests in Egypt and Unrest in the Middle East-As It Happened”]
2. EVEN ELEMENTS OF THE NONVIOLENT MOVEMENT EMBRACED SABOTAGE AND CONFRONTATION
The April 6 Youth Movement are considered the best organized group of Egypt’s New Left, taking the lead in creating web sites and organizing marches at the start of the revolution, and speaking to the media as it developed. A6YM are partnered with the Egyptian exile organization Academy for Change, which promotes the nonviolent theories of American political scientist Gene Sharp.
Shortly after the Tahrir occupation began, A6YM, along with others groups, began circulating a booklet entitled “How to Protest Intelligently” It included numerous recommendations common to the nonviolence strategy: appeal to the public’s patriotism, shout only positive slogans, attempt to befriend the police. However if these tactics did not work, and in the event that non-lethal weaponry was deployed by the state, the booklet urged that protesters protect themselves with lemon-soaked scarves against teargas, use makeshift shields against rubber bullets, and stand their ground against a police onslaught.
More audaciously, the primer provided ideas for sabotaging police vehicles. “You can also stick a wet towel in the vehicle’s exhaust to stop it.” Spray paint could be used not only on car wind shields, but on the visor of an officer’s riot helmet, if you were ready to get that close. “Block the truncheon with your shield while you’re spraying them in the face!” urged the caption to an illustration of what looked like hand-to-hand combat. [The Atlantic, January 27, 2001, “Egyptian Activists’ Action Plan: Translated”] (2)
Tactical pacifists generally adhere to a list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action that Gene Sharp published in 1973. Sabotage isn’t on that list. Intentionally or not, these tactics likely stoked the public’s appetite for open insurrection. The contradictions between sabotaging the cops and embracing them were simply unsustainable.
3. THE STREET FIGHTERS WEREN'T LED BY AGENTS PROVOCATEURS, THEY WERE LED BY A MASS OF WELL-ORGANIZED OUTLAW SPORTS FANS
On January 31, writer Dave Zirin (who seven months later would be a guest speaker at the Occupy Wall Street general assembly) filed a report for CNN.com:
"Over the decades that have marked the tenure of Mubarak, there has been one consistent nexus of anger, organization and practical experience in the ancient art of street fighting: the country’s soccer cults. Over the past week, the most organized, militant fan clubs, also known as “ultras”, have put those years of experience to ample use."
Zirin cited an interview that Alaa Abd El Fattah - one of Egypt’s most prominent dissident bloggers - had given to Al Jazeera English two days before. “The ultras,” El Fattah said, “have played a more significant role than any political group on the ground at the moment.” [NY Times Soccer Blog, January 31, 2011, “US Cancels Friendly in Egypt”] Among the soccer fans’ contributions was coordinating “direct confrontation with the state police.”
4. THE STREETFIGHTERS WERE DECISIVE IN DEFENDING THE OCCUPATION
Several months later, ultras who helped ouster Mubarak elaborated on their place in the movement to CNN. “Our role was to make people dream,” said an ultra named Assad, “letting them know if a cop hits you, you can hit them back.” [CNN.com, June 29, 2001, “Egypt's revolutionary soccer ultras: How football fans toppled Mubarak”] (3) Another ultra named Mohammed spoke of their particular role in the January 28 Day of Rage, the first day where pro-Mubarak protesters appeared to reinforce the police. “Together as a group in the square we were a big power…10,000-15,000 people fighting without any fear. The ultras were the leaders of the battle.” The NY Times called the fighting in Cairo that day – which climaxed with the burning of Mubarak’s party headquarters - “perhaps the most pivotal battle of the revolution.” [NY Times, February 13, “Egyptians and Tunisians Collaborated to Shake Arab History”]
While soccer fans don’t appear to have taken a large part in looting – in fact many ultras obstructed and captured looters – there is no doubt that their outlaw, hooligan tactics were key to preserving the occupation of Tahrir Square
5. MILITANT TACTICS STEADILY GREW IN POPULARITY AND WERE WIDELY REPLICATED
The ultras clearly came prepared for battle, but many protesters arrived committed to nonviolence (albeit the broad definition of nonviolence depicted in the “Protest Intelligently” booklet). This became increasingly untenable over time however. The greatest conversion took place on February 2nd, “The Battle of the Camels”, which contrary to its name, hinged less on the use of draft animals than the use of projectiles. Undercover police took a major role in rock-throwing that day, not as agents provocateurs among the protesters, but as open antagonists against them. The NY Times described the transition this caused among the pacifists:
"The protesters — trying to stay true to the lessons they had learned from Gandhi, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gene Sharp — tried for a time to avoid retaliating. A row of men stood silent as rocks rained down on them. An older man told a younger one to put down his stick. But by 3:30 p.m., the battle was joined." [NY Times, February 13, “Egyptians and Tunisians Collaborated to Shake Arab History”]
Amr El Beleidy, one of the revolution’s most prolific Twitter correspondents, documented his changing attitudes towards violence that day: “I came to a peaceful protest, this is not one!” he complained on Twitter in the midst of the street battle at 4:30 pm. At midnight he tweeted, “I did not take part in the violence, which is a real moral dilemma for me right now, for it's the people who did who saved me.” (4)
The Guardian paints a portrait of a post-apocalyptic, yet well-organized, street militia saving the occupation that day: “Advancing behind shields of corrugated iron and bits of car, like a ramshackle Roman legion breaking a siege, the youth, or "shabab", secured the streets, while in the rear makeshift medical centres cared for the wounded.” [The Guardian, April 14, 2001, “Tahrir Square Tweet By Tweet”]
February 2nd was crucial in that the protesters’ resistance was so fierce, it held off a sustained offensive by the police and pro-Mubarak civilians for 14 hours, forcing the security forces to resort to gunfire to claim the upper hand. This escalation in turn provoked the military to intervene against the police for the first time. And while some give the Muslim Brotherhood primary credit for street fighting that day, Ahmed Maher of the April 6 Youth Movement affirmed the ultras pivotal place in the resistance:
“The youth of the Muslim Brotherhood played a really big role,” Mr. Maher said. “But actually so did the soccer fans” of Egypt’s two leading teams. “These are always used to having confrontations with police at the stadiums,” he said. [NY Times, February 13, “Egyptians and Tunisians Collaborated to Shake Arab History”]
8. THE INSURRECTION CROSSED GENDER LINES
One of the most common objections to militant tactics and attitudes is that they are primarily based on machismo, and reinforce patriarchal relationships. This line of argument ignores the disrespect that many of Martin Luther King’s female colleagues experienced at his hands, [NY Times, September 22, 2007, “The Women Behind the Men”] as well as the numerous feminist critiques of pacifist father-figure Gandhi. More importantly, it degrades the rich history of militancy by women stretching from Harriet Tubman - who traveled armed and helped plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry - through to the Stonewall Riot, which began when a lesbian arrestee struggled with police officers and urged the rest of the crowd to fight.
While aggressive resistance may have been most common among the soccer ultras and the Muslim Brotherhood, it was nonetheless dispersed throughout the entire Cairo occupation, including its female-bodied participants. Witnesses speak with pride and awe of the role women played in the insurrection. Even more importantly, they saw a positive relationship between self-defense and the empowerment of women.
Tahrir veteran Gigi Ibrahim told Al Jazeera that female militancy pre-dates the revolution, citing her experiences in the labor and anti-police brutality movements: “Whenever violence erupts, the women would step up and fight the police, and they would be beaten just as much as the men.” On that critical day of February 2nd, she saw it more than ever, as women flooded into a variety of new roles: running medical services, coordinating communications, and battling the authorities. Revolutionary Sama El Tarzi, confirmed this, “There were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs.”
Both young militants agreed that participation in active resistance was liberating for the women and edifying to the men. “Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir,” El Tarzi told Al Jazeera. “When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line that changed their perception of us and we were all united.” Ibrahim recalled that, “During the 18 days neither I nor any of my friends were harassed. I slept in Tahrir with five men around me that I didn't know and I was safe.” El Tarzi too observed a marked decrease in violence against women.
Both revolutionaries agreed that this gender progress ended when many of the protesters proclaimed their allegiance to the interim military government, attempting to return everyday life to normal. Nonetheless, the wave of insurrection left the women on a different and higher ground. “Before January 25 I was tempted to leave the country," said Gigi Ibrahim. "This feeling has changed now, I want to stay here. This is an extension of our role in the revolution, we have to stay here and contribute to changing our society." [ Al Jazeera English, February 19, 2011, “Women of the Revolution” ]