Egypt today is a classic case of The Who’s famous song “Wont Get Fooled Again:” Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Soon after his election, Morsi began using the Mubarak playbook to run the country, just with an Islamist spin. He has ordered the arrest of journalists and protesters, attempted to undermine the judiciary, stacked the organization in charge of the new constitution in favor of his own organization, used secret police and military units to enforce his laws, and most recently, enacted “emergency law” to try and control whole cities. His removal from power has become the focus of the opposition. His reputation at home and abroad has come under justifiable attack and his association with the revolution has become an insult to those who have sacrificed so much for Egypt.
This most recent anniversary, however, saw a new player enter the fray. The so-called “Black Bloc” announced themselves to the country on January 24th via a YouTube video. Masked youth marching in Alexandria under flags of anarchy, their mission was stated as “fighting against the fascist regime and their armed wing.” The result of this announcement, and the presence of supposed Black Bloc members in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, has garnered mixed results.
Traditionally, the “black bloc” is not an actual organization, it is a method of protest, most recently made popular during the “Occupy” movement in the US. To be the black bloc, a group of people simply don black clothing and masks to appear as a unified, anonymous group at any given protest. Typically associated with the anarchist movement (itself a contradiction in terms), the black bloc has also been referred to as the “cancer of the Occupy movement.” So, the appearance of a black bloc among Egyptians may not have come as a surprise, but the reaction from all sides within Egypt has definitely has.
The Black Bloc, now supposedly an organization, appeared at a protest outside Cairo’s presidential palace on the 25th. A member allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at the palace, and the police retaliated with clubs and tear gas, and the game was afoot. The Black Bloc appeared in Tahrir Square and in the streets around it, clashing with the police. Online proclamations said that the group would fight against the police to the extent that civilians were targeted, and would do so without hesitation. Another message took responsibility for the burning of two offices of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.
Accusations began almost immediately and in all directions. The Muslim Brotherhood’s website suggested that the group was a radical Christian militia or alternatively accused the group of being supported, or led, by prominent opposition politicians. The Jihad Organization accused them of receiving foreign financing. The Prosecutor General declared them a terrorist organization and ordered the arrest of all members. And some even wondered if they weren’t a straw-man, set up by the government itself, to sow discontent among the public about the revolution. The most alarming response came from the Jama’a Islamiya, Egypt’s own militant Islamic movement, who announced that the members of the Black Bloc must be killed, a sentiment echoed by other radical elements.
Whoever the Black Bloc is, they are seen as either heroes or villains to Egyptians. They generally refuse to speak to the media, so facts about them are thin on the ground. One supposed founder of the group put their number at 10,000 across the country. Another member, who did speak to the press, cited their number at no more than 100. Opposition groups fear that the group’s tactics will cause a reprisal from the government or other Islamist organizations. People on the street see them as thugs or their salvation from the militias of the government, with black masks flying off the shelves of stores and street vendors. Their various, and unconfirmed, Facebook and Twitter accounts count tens of thousands as followers.
Political activist Mahmoud Salem sees the group, and the reaction to it, as part of the current cycle of absurdity in Egyptian politics and he may be right. The newspaper of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party described the Black Bloc as the third element of a “triangle of evil” within Egypt, the first two elements being the opposition National Salvation Front (i.e. anyone who is not the Muslim Brotherhood) and the “seditious media.”
But, the regime does not see them as absurd; four people were arrested the day the group was outlawed, 18 more the following day. Not to be left out of the absurdity, though, the government did arrest one person for being a member of the Black Bloc and accused him of attempting to carry out an Israeli sabotage operation. Apparently Morsi needed to blame something on the Israelis.
As the revolution begins its third year, one thing is clear, opposition to corruption and authoritarianism is not dead. Protests continue against the Morsi regime, and the Black Bloc, whoever or whatever they are, has become another manifestation of Egyptian exasperation with the process. Parliamentary elections are due as early as this coming March, and Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood may be in for a bit of a surprise. His cover as a reformer has been blown, there are widespread protests against his regime and Egyptians are not going to accept his crackdown on the opposition, any more than they did Mubarak’s.
Be they a force within, or without, the opposition, the Black Bloc have certainly shaken something loose in Egypt.
By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist