Protesters demolish a concrete wall around a building housing the Israeli embassy in Egypt's capital, Cairo, on 9 September. Photograph: Khalil Hamra/AP
Monday, September 12, 2011
Egypt's Fragmenting Revolution
The attack on the Israeli embassy is a wake-up call for the 25 January protesters to focus on the ballot box, not the streets
By Steve Negus
The only surprising thing about the breach of the Israeli embassy in Cairo at the weekend is that it never happened any time before in the past 30 years. In a city that abounds in isolated walled desert compounds, someone decided to put the most often marched-upon facility in Egypt in a quite ordinary apartment building in the heart of the city, whose defences basically consist of however much force the security services/army choose to deploy on the street that particular day.
Throughout the 1990s, at least once a year, students from nearby Cairo University staged a half-hearted attempt to storm the place. The hardcore "Ultra" football club fans who seemed to be a major contingent of the crowd may simply have been more persistent than your usual Cairo demonstrators – partly because the self-styled "commandos of the revolution" are used to fighting with police, and partly because they claimed to have one of their own dead to avenge, supposedly killed last week in a post-match battle between Ahly club fans and police on Saleh Salem Road.
I was at the Tahrir demo earlier in the day, and although the Ultras were a heavy presence, and although small groups approached the nearby interior ministry from time to time, most of them responded pretty quickly to the "Peacefully! Peacefully!" chants from the crowd. In fact, part of the reason that the Ultras were there seemed to be that they wanted to be taken seriously as an aggrieved constituency – a huge banner reading "Ultras are not criminals!" hung in the square.
Ultras in the crowd said that while they were used to demonstrating, on Friday they came specifically on account of their own grievances: police brutality, and the referral of civilians to military trials.
Ultra claims of victimhood wear a bit thin when it's pretty clear that a good number of them come to matches revved up for confrontation. On the other hand, from what I have heard, police at matches tend to treat all working-class fans as though they were riot-minded animals, so the Ultras who do want to fight the cops have a pretty good pool of resentment and humiliation to draw upon.
The other issue, obviously, is the widespread belief that the purist expression of Egyptian nationalism is "go smash something Israeli". I half suspect that the embassy is where it is because it did divert crowds at Cairo University – until a few years ago the main locus of demonstrations here – from other domestic targets and other domestic issues.
Twitterers have been lamenting that the Israeli embassy violence has overshadowed the original demands of ending the military trials of civilians and ensuring an independent judiciary. Pro-embassy-storming Twitterers have been celebrating this "victory", and in a few cases, lashing back at those who argues that attacking a diplomatic symbol of Israel is a waste of time.
One of the more perceptive tweets I've seen comes from Egyptian Thinker:
"reminder: #Jan25 is a [increasingly] decentralized, grassroots movement which cannot, by definition, be controlled. Stop blaming each other."
As a revolution progresses, and accomplishes some of the initial uprising's goals (ie, removing Mubarak) without accomplishing others (ie, a true overhaul of the police), it's pretty inevitable that revolutionaries will part ways, fall out over tactics, objectives, etc. This is particularly going to be the case when there's been a bit of malaise in the movement, and the number of longtime demonstrators who show up in Tahrir are not of sufficient mass to steer those groups (like the Ultras) who may have other agendas.
An uprising like Tahrir is an emotional state, not an institution – it has no means of resolving internal disagreements, and when the initial sense of euphoria and unity wears off, it must eventually yield to a more formal body with a more formal decision-making process. In Egypt's case, I hope, that body is going to be an elected parliament.
Some critics of the path that Egypt's revolution has taken in recent months contrast the tactics of the original leftish-liberalish revolutionaries – trying to force change by crowd action, futilely, with those of the Islamists, preparing for the elections, wisely.
This is a bit of an oversimplification: so long as the unelected Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) is in power, I think there is a role for crowd action against bad Scaf decisions. But activists do need to realise that unless they force Scaf to step down (rather unlikely at this point), at best they are going to provide a disincentive to take certain unpopular actions. They are not likely to force Scaf to embark on a wholehearted campaign of institutional reform. They are even less likely to force an unwilling military regime to reframe its relationship with a former adversary (Israel) with whom it fought five destructive wars.
As for election preparation, some groups with their roots in the 6 April and 25 January activism have been out canvassing for votes. Last month, for example, I went around with a group from the Adl party, running a clinic and distributing medicines in a poor district of Alexandria. The Adl party were clearly taking a leaf out of the Muslim Brothers' book, making sure that their activists are known and respected by as many people as possible before they start heavily pushing a political programme.
Also, protests in their own way are a form of election preparation. They keep the movements in the news, and thus on talk shows, which is a form of exposure. Whether or not this counterbalances the negative impact of being associated, fairly or unfairly, with street violence is open to question.
But in general, I think the weekend's events ought to be yet another wake-up call to the revolutionary movement that if they want to have a lasting impact, they need to start thinking a little less about the streets and a little more about the ballot box.
Also, someone needs to find another place to put the Israeli embassy.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 12/09/2011- Steve Negus is a journalist and commentator specialising in Egypt and Iraq. He was Iraq correspondent for the Financial Times between 2004 and 2008, and worked for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in 2003 and 2004. He lived and worked in Egypt between 1993 and 2003, where he was editor of the Cairo Times, among other jobs