Tear gas and birdshot filled the air for hours on Monday — the second anniversary of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster — as Molotov-throwing protesters and police clashed before the presidential palace. The chaotic scenes wound down in the early hours of Tuesday. Police stopped lobbing tear gas canisters. The rioters moved away from the area and left. By Tuesday morning traffic had returned to normal.
It is a pattern that has been repeated many times since the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, particularly on Fridays. Egypt has grown accustomed to protests, riots and sit-ins. They have been on the rise since the January Revolution two years ago. Initially they were focussed in Cairo, taking place most often in Tahrir Square.
Since the revolution’s second anniversary a qualitative shift has occurred. Protests are no longer confined to the capital. Save for a few tents here and there Tahrir has been abandoned for other locations, the presidential palace in Heliopolis among them. But the real action is happening elsewhere, in Alexandria, Suez, Tanta in the Delta, Beni Sweif in the south, the industrial city of Mahalla and in Morsi’s hometown, Sharqiya, among other areas.
The recent, and increasingly violent, protests are a departure from the mostly peaceful demonstrations that marked the first 22 months of the revolution when specific demands — minimum and maximum wages, the purging of the notorious security apparatus, improved public services — were made over and over again.
According to the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, about 60, including three police officers, have been killed in the last three weeks, and over 2,000 people have been injured. At least 35 government buildings and 13 private institutions have been attacked, and more than 450 protesters detained.
That the rioters articulate no demands is a result, argues leftist activist Wael Khalil, of such demands being repeatedly ignored in the past.
Protests are now being fed by a more visceral anger, directed at a ruling establishment that has presided over a faltering economy, a steady deterioration in the value of the local currency and inflation and which appears incapable of taking on board the daily concerns of ordinary citizens. Police brutality and mass detentions have fuelled the fury which is directed at President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the security apparatus on which they are perceived as relying ever more heavily.
“This is about anger,” says Mahinour Al-Masri, a rights activist based in Alexandria. “A young man is shot or tortured to death by police, dozens are rounded up” and nobody is held accountable. The police briefly held Al-Masri on 21 January. Little is known about the political affiliations of the rioters. Many hide their faces with masks, scarves and headgear, partly to conceal their identities but also because of the powerful tear gas that is being used in enormous quantities. The current wave of protests is, quite literally, faceless. It could be a nihilistic outpouring against the authorities. It could be a sign of another turning point in post-revolution Egypt. It could be both.
“They’re important because they demonstrate to the authorities that there won’t be any stability as long as policies remain unchanged,” says Khalil. But that’s where the message ends. “Nobody claims to have a strategy for the protests... they are an expression of frustration and the disappointment people feel over officials who have failed to offer any glimmer of hope for change.”
But not everyone who is discontent with the system supports the violent protests. “Overthrowing Morsi happens on Fridays and on anniversaries,” Mosaab Al-Shami, a photographer and activist, wrote on his Twitter account on Monday. The riots have become “a boring repeat of the events”, a “pitiful” march every Friday after which protesters attempt to climb the presidential palace gates and are beaten back by water cannon and tear gas.
“The problem is that every action in the street is qualified as revolutionary and those doing it necessarily right even when they’re damaging the revolution,” added Al-Shami.
But that’s not the only thing the riots are about. They are also an expression of the erosion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s credibility. A recent poll conducted by Al-Baseera, a public opinion research centre, revealed that Morsi’s approval ratings had slipped from 63 per cent in December 2012 to 57 per cent by the end of January. More significantly, 39 per cent of those polled said they would elect Morsi again, a drop from 50 per cent recorded in December 2012.
The protests reveal how unconvincing Morsi is as president, says Khalil Al-Anani, a scholar at Durham University’s department of Middle East Studies. And the fact that the protests have moved outside Cairo and now encompass even rural areas illustrates how widespread the sentiment is.It’s very clear the Brotherhood and Morsi can no longer rely on their “religious and moral credit... to secure support in the street”.
Morsi and the Brotherhood may be the main focus of public discontent but the National Salvation Front, the main opposition network, has not escaped criticism. They’re accused of taking advantage of the protests to make political gains which rioters don’t relate to and often resent.
“Nobody in the opposition has a comprehensive alternative,” says Al-Masri. “They simply envision replacing Morsi with someone else while retaining the same system.”
The street, the opposition, the ruling establishment: none of them appears to have a strategy to address Egypt’s discontents. And there is no reason to think parliamentary elections due in March will radically alter the political map or usher in a breakthrough.
“Many voters will think twice before voting for the Brotherhood again but then there is no convincing alternative that can fill the vacuum. And elections in Egypt, in the end, are a matter of mobilisation and business, not politics,” says Al-Anani.