On Friday November 25, 2011, one week after the Mohamed Mahmoud events, I was standing near one of the entrances to the Sadat metro station, its tunnels spreading beneath Tahrir Square like a spider’s web. I saw a man wearing a heavy brown galabeya turn to a man walking beside him, and ask: “Where’s that street … Mohamed Mahmoud?”
During a moment of the “revolutionary romance” I was experiencing, I imagined this man’s day. I imagined that he woke up in his bed in a small village far away from Cairo, and that he put on his galabeya and decided to come to Cairo to see the site of the battle for himself.
It was this romance that made me think that perhaps the revolution had won a major victory that week. But in the moments when I sober up from the intoxication of this romance I conclude that both the revolution and revolutionary and democratic forces in Egypt have lost one of the most important battles in the history of the revolution.
The Mohamed Mahmoud protests were the first of their kind during the revolution. The people came out against the two most important camps in the history of the Egyptian state: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. At the same time, the protesters were challenging the state’s security arm, the Interior Ministry.
While there is uncertainty about how the events started, the incident that really provoked people’s anger was the attack by the army and security bodies on a small number of protesters, no more than 100, who had set up camp in Tahrir Square about a week before the clashes.
The protesters were individuals who had been injured during the revolution. A week after their sit-in began, and the day before the events of Mohamed Mahmoud, a large protest took place in Tahrir Square. The protest was organized by Islamist forces opposed to the document put forward by then-deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Selmi, which laid out a number of “supraconstitutional” principles rejected by the Islamists.
The Islamists came to Tahrir Square and protested where the revolution’s injured were assembled. The next day (Saturday November 19, 2011), without any warning or justification, security forces used brutal force to disperse the small sit-in. The action provoked many Egyptians, who assembled in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the street that connects Tahrir Square, the symbol of the revolution, and the Interior Ministry building, the symbol of the security state.
We were approaching parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place at the end of November. This was despite the many failed attempts by democratic and revolutionary forces to change the road map shaped by the success of the Islamists and a “yes” vote by the majority of Egyptians who took part in the March 19 referendum, which resulted in elections being held before a constitution had been drafted.
Democratic and revolutionary forces wanted at that time to exploit this movement to delay the elections. They had failed to convince public opinion that having elections first was not the correct means of making democracy take root. At the same time, Islamists had succeeded in convincing many people that democracy is nothing more than elections.
The street protests were not, in essence, against the holding of elections. Many protesters I spoke to during the events said that they weren’t against taking part in elections but, at that time, they rejected the Interior Ministry’s continued use of violence. The people were motivated by something more profound than these details fought over by politicians and activists, and which boil down to an argument over when elections should be held. People took to the streets to maintain the autonomy of the street, and of public space, and to ensure that the Interior Ministry did not return once more to its repressive practices. People chanted “Down with military rule” in order to state their rejection of the continuing military state. People took to the streets despite calls by Islamists for calm, and despite their appeals that people should wait until the elections.
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak, people began the quest for a political current that would represent them. The only options they found were the two biggest political forces, both of which had designs on power and possibly fascist intentions. Both camps relied on messages that were easy for the man in the street to understand.
The first model was that of the Islamists. Despite the fact that they were not correct, the two messages that the Islamists focused on — Egyptian society is Islamist, and Egyptians are pious by nature — occasionally drew the street to them and made the street believe that it was Islamist in nature. This was largely due to the Islamists’ mobilization and cohesion with the street. The second model was that of the army, which relied on nationalist rhetoric and the message that the military was the only national institution working for the country’s interests. While it is not true that the only thing that gets results from Egyptians is whipping them, or having a military figure keep them in line, the army’s use of a nationalist message drew the street toward it and reinforced the idea that the whip is the only thing works.
In Mohamed Mahmoud it was clear that a large segment of the street refused both projects. Despite this, democratic forces failed to connect the street at that moment and select messages that expressed themselves and answered the street’s need for a new project far removed from the dull binary of the military and the Brotherhood.
On the ground, protesters scored a victory against the Interior Ministry by preventing it from committing the violence it hungers for. Politically, democratic and revolutionary forces failed to exploit the movement in Mohamed Mahmoud as the first building block of a genuine third current to fight the power-hungry Islamists and military, as well as the Interior Ministry. And then it lost the shallow battle over the elections, which went ahead on schedule and which Islamists won in a landslide victory. In addition to this, the revolutionary forces that boycotted the elections found a new reason for not taking part in the elections, and this was that they were being held against a backdrop of the blood of the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs.
The protest movement waned after Egyptians took part in the elections that started November 28, 2011. Some political actors considered this a mistake on the part of the people, with the same superior attitude from the elite and some secular forces. These are forces that constantly justify their failures by saying that the people do not listen to their marvelous advice, transmitted on television or via social media sites, while in reality they are completely disconnected from the street and unqualified to talk about it.
The street is neither Islamist in character nor infatuated with the army. Rather, democratic and revolutionary forces are failing to respond to their aspirations.
The only kind of movement the street sees from secular forces is for their own interests and personal freedoms. The street sees secular groups as an invitation to dissoluteness and its proponents as defending the right of their wives to wear short skirts. It views the left as a group of people who have no religion and who are hired to spread chaos. The street will stay like this as long as activists and the elite who represent these forces remain removed from it and continue, from a lofty pulpit, their calls to people to mobilize for demands they do not believe offer them anything.
On its second anniversary, Mohamed Mahmoud is still defeating the military and Brotherhood. The street’s history stood alone against attempts made on social media by Brotherhood youth to claim that the Brotherhood were in the square. It stood against their calls for people to go there on the anniversary of its fierce battle, with the result that the Legitimacy Coalition that represents supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi have announced that their marches will not go to Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
The street’s history also stood against attempts by the army and the Interior Ministry to hold their celebrations today. The Interior Ministry published a statement in which it said “glory to the martyrs” (the writer of this statement perhaps forgot to add, “who we killed”), and today army and Interior Ministry vehicles surround Tahrir Square, completely closing off Mohamed Mahmoud Street. A media campaign against protesting on November 19 has also begun: on Friday, the front page of the state-owned Al-Ahram led with the headline “The 5th column forms alliance with Muslim Brotherhood to spread chaos.”
Perhaps we also failed in moving the revolution away from its over-centralization in Tahrir and Mohamed Mahmoud, that street whose splendidness the man in the galabeya came to witness. We failed in creating a non-centralized movement that would take the revolution to that man, wherever he might be. If that had happened, matters might be more difficult for the army and the police than merely closing the square and the street.
The history of this day will remain terrifying for the military and the Interior Ministry. It will also remain a mark of shame that pursues the Brotherhood. Its memory will remain the seed of a movement that refuses the fascism of both camps, as well as state oppression. The question remains: when will democratic powers translate their activism into a message that reaches the street and initiates a movement of a different kind? Perhaps the answer will come on the second anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud.