- Published on Monday, 12 September 2011 09:48
- Category: Letters From Egypt
An earlier version of this article appeared on YearinCairo.com, on September 10.
Pulling into the Sadat Metro station in downtown Cairo at around 1 pm as Friday prayers reached a close, there was near silence and little sign of the budding protest above ground.
Political groups of various persuasions increasingly fed up with what they believe to be lackluster reforms and authoritarian policies by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) called for the September 9th protests in the name of “Correcting the Path of the Revolution.” Issues ranging from the timetable of upcoming elections to rising street crime have been particularly contentious issues.
In the Tahrir Square area, a stage was set up on one side, football fans known as the Ahly and Zamalek “Ultras” chanted nearby, and demonstrators began to arrive en masse. The leaders of pro-democracy and revolution groups passed around a microphone on the main stage, appealing to the SCAF to address their grievances and make good on their pledge to uphold the rule of law and transfer power to an elected government.
Prominent revolutionary groups such as the April 6 Movement entered the square carrying their respective banners starting around 2 pm.
There was a festive mood in the air. Vendors sold fresh juice, popcorn, ice cream, yams, and rice pudding snacks. Demonstrators stretched out and relaxed in the areas of greenery that surround the square’s streets.
By mid-afternoon, around 4 pm, the speakers on the main stage were still hitting on many of the same themes, but the huge groups of football fans maintained a high level of energy throughout.
At 5 pm, an hour before the scheduled finale of the protests, the April 6 Movement did a last lap before marching down Kasr El Eini street, probably hoping to go out on a high note, cheering pro-democracy slogans and waving their distinctive black banners.
Overall the event proceeded without much interruption or chaos, except for a period around 5:30 when demonstrators started sprinting away from the square apparently after police had moved to disband a group of demonstrators.
Only much later, after most had vacated Tahrir, did crowds swell around the Israeli embassy in Dokki. By around 7:30 pm, news spread that a group of protesters had breached the wall, recently erected by the SCAF, that surrounds the embassy building. Protesters also climbed the building and took down the Israeli flag for the second time in a month, replacing it with a Palestinian flag.
At approximately 10:30 pm, tanks rolled into the area, also home to the Saudi Arabian and French embassy buildings. Protesters had broken into the embassy building (the Israeli offices are only on the top two floors) and thrown documents out the window. At the same time, hundreds of people gathered at the gate of a Giza security building across the street from the Saudi embassy.
Al-Masry Al-Youm reported that 219 protesters were injured, and one died of a heart attack during the night’s events. SCAF officials called emergency meetings and put the country on a “State of Alert.”
So what is to be made of the events on September 9th? News agencies have clearly decided that the story here is a new, violent, and chaotic chapter in the Egyptian Revolution. Relatively little ink, however, has been dedicated to the actual grievances of the Tahrir protesters, who far outnumbered the crowd in Giza.
Moreover, the entire context of both the afternoon and evening demonstrations is the power the SCAF has over Egypt’s future. To the extent that the SCAF is ostensibly friendlier to the status quo, including peace agreements and military cooperation with the Israeli and American governments, it is hard to see how September 9th was anything but a boon to the existing military regime.
How people feel about what happened is a bit more complicated. The consensus, for the reasons outlined above, is that the attacks on the embassy will prove to be a setback for the revolution and protesters. Specifically, many feel that while breaching the wall around the embassy was one thing, actually breaking into the building turned a symbolic success into an act of aggression that was unwarranted and dangerous.
The fact is the wall was a terrible idea to begin with. Nowhere near the size or strength needed to actually guard the Israeli Embassy (as was made abundantly clear on Friday night), it merely reminded Egyptians, predictably, of another wall not so far away.
Still, the day’s events have not exactly received positive reviews. Even before the Israeli Embassy incident, Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Center, tweeted, “Today’s Tahrir protest might have been the most incoherent, ineffective, anti-strategic protest in recent memory.” Indeed, many groups, including the Wafd party, abstained from the protests altogether, further testing the strength of the revolutionary coalitions.
We can play the “they should have done this, they should have said that” game all day, but insofar as legitimacy and credibility are two-way streets dependent on the audience as much as the actors, the bottom line is that it is far from clear what happens now or how state leaders will react.
So will September 9th hurt the revolution’s cause? I’d start by saying this: we shouldn’t want it to.
By Will Roth, Aslan Media Content Manager