Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A tangled web

Was there more to the violence that erupted in Cairo last Friday than meets the eye, wonders Khaled Dawoud

Click to view caption
The "Returning to Course" Friday started peacefully and ended with violence

The bloody clashes between protesters and police and army units near the Israeli embassy on Friday took many of the thousands who had gathered in Tahrir Square for the "Returning to Course" protest by surprise. Organisers did their best to ensure that the protest would be peaceful, and would end without any attempt to block or occupy the square. Nearly all political parties, coalitions and youth groups who called for the demonstration insisted they had nothing to do with later events and denounced the breach of the Israeli embassy.

There were signs of something fishy being cooked days before the protest, called in opposition to a new election law and to protest at the continued referral of civilians to military courts. On Wednesday, 7 September, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a statement confirming the right of citizens to protest peacefully. More surprisingly, the statement said organisers of the protest must take responsibility for security in Tahrir Square and that there would be no police or army presence on Friday. Some of the protest's organisers feared that this would lead to violence and encourage attacks on protesters by supporters of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

The Interior Ministry was also aware that Ahli club football fans, known as the Ultras, were planning to take part in Friday's demonstration to protest against what they described as the excessive use of force by anti-riot police during a football game at Cairo Stadium on 6 September. More than 130 people were injured in the ensuing clashes and scores were arrested. The Ahli fans, together with supporters of rival teams Zamalek and Ismaili, came to Tahrir in large numbers and demonstrated in one group, shouting the same slogans against the Interior Ministry that they use during football games.

In the face of calls by a number of demonstrators to head to the Israeli embassy and take part in the destruction of a wall built by the Giza governorate two weeks ago to protect the 18-storey building where the embassy is located speakers at the rally repeatedly cautioned against clashes. When one of the protesters attempted to burn an Israeli flag on the main stage in the middle of Tahrir Square other speakers tried to stop him, saying that the rally was only to protest against the election law and to press the SCAF to declare a firm timetable for the transfer of power to civilian rule. The majority of speakers also reminded protesters that they needed to leave the square by 6pm. The Interior Ministry and army had earlier announced that they would leave Tahrir by midnight Thursday and return 24 hours later. .

By sunset on Friday rumours spread that the Ultras were attempting to take over the nearby Interior Ministry. They proved to be exaggerated: a few dozen young men stood in front of the ministry's main gate, throwing rocks inside the compound and slowly removing the sign while others were busy destroying a small wooden kiosk normally used by the building's security guards. The Interior Ministry, site of some of the most violent clashes in recent months, is usually protected by tanks but on Friday there were no military vehicles present.

In front of the Israeli embassy in Giza hundreds of riot police stood by as protesters started destroying the wall which was constructed after a protester, Ahmed El-Shahat, managed to scale the building and remove the Israeli flag. Following his exploit El-Shahat met with Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. The governor of Sharqiya, from where El-Shahat hails, subsequently announced that he would receive a state-owned apartment.

Since 18 August, when Israeli forces killed an Egyptian officer and five soldiers in a cross border attack, demonstrations near the embassy have been met by a strong police and army presence. Yet on Friday police and army personnel withdrew suddenly.

Islamist groups that boycotted Friday's "Returning to Course" demonstration, including the Muslim Brotherhood, criticised the secular groups that organised the event, blaming them for the violence that followed. Assem Abdel-Maged, a spokesman for Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya, said that the protest on Friday had "stalled the revolution rather than setting it back on course".

"Secularists triggered the violence in an attempt to push the SCAF into postponing parliamentary elections," he charged.

Mohamed Adel, a spokesman for the 6 April Movement, one of the organisers of Friday's demonstration, denied any involvement in the clashes that took place near the Israeli embassy, or attempts to raid the headquarters of Giza Security Department early on Saturday. Adel blamed members of Mubarak's regime, including his sons Gamal and Alaa, and the former Interior Minister Habib El-Adli, of instigating the violence in order to "distort the image of the 25 January Revolution and turn Egyptians against it". Adel added that it was possible the SCAF and the Interior Ministry had not intervened to prevent the violence on Friday because they wanted it to spread, furnishing them with an excuse to crack down on revolutionary youth groups later and dust off the discredited emergency law.

A spokesman for "We are Sorry President", a group of former president Mubarak's supporters, said the group had issued firm orders to its followers not to demonstrate on Friday in order to avoid any violence or clashes with supporters of the 25 January Revolution.

Other news reports blamed the Ahli football fans for the attacks on the Israeli embassy, the Giza police headquarters and the Saudi embassy. But a spokesman for the Ahli Ultras denied any involvement, claiming that Ahli fans left Tahrir Square peacefully at 6pm.

Both the interior and justice ministers furnished their own versions of events. Interior Minister Mansour Eissawi blamed unspecified "outside forces that seek to disrupt stability in Egypt" for the clashes, while Justice Minister Mohamed El-Guindi said he had a "report" confirming that "nearby small Arab Gulf countries are providing millions in support of groups and associations attempting to disrupt stability in Egypt". He declined to provide any additional details.

Abdallah El-Senawi, a columnist and political activist, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the conspiracy theories surrounding Friday's events were all wide of the mark. The people who raided the Israeli embassy on Friday, he said, were "ordinary young Egyptians angered by the weak reaction of the Egyptian government to the killing of six soldiers on the border".

El-Senawi further argued that the protesters had received "conflicting signals", watching as El-Shahat -- dubbed "Egypt's Spiderman" for scaling the building and removing the Israeli flag -- was feted by senior officials, including the prime minister. Yet following the most recent clashes before the embassy the SCAF and Interior Ministry not only arrested nearly 200 protesters but have announced that they will be tried in the notorious Emergency State Security Court.

A source close to youth groups that have emerged since Mubarak's removal told Al-Ahram Weekly that small groups of radical leftists, Islamists and ordinary Egyptian youth were most likely responsible for the breach of the Israeli embassy building.

"Since the revolution ended new groups are appearing almost daily. Some of them hold very radical views and believe that all members of Mubarak's regime, including those in the SCAF, must be toppled."

Members of Labour Party Youth, Revolutionary Socialist Youth and the Egyptian Justice and Equality Movement have all released statements on the Internet claiming responsibility for the Israeli embassy raid.

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