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Egypt protests struggle to find an audience

Rallies on anniversary of clashes draw little support from a politically exhausted public.

Last updated: 20 Nov 2013 08:46
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Attendance at Tuesday's protests in Cairo was low [Gregg Carlstrom/Al Jazeera]

Cairo - Crowds of protesters marched through downtown Cairo, chanting slogans against military rule ("killers!"), the Muslim Brotherhood ("killers!"), and just about every other organised political group in Egypt.

A few metres away, a group of men watched Egypt's World Cup qualifier against Ghana, seemingly oblivious.

Almost everyone in Egypt had a reason to take to the streets on Tuesday. It was the second anniversary of the start of deadly clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo, a nearly week-long battle that left more than 40 people dead and thousands wounded. Revolutionary groups called for protests to remember the victims.

Some of them did so one day early, however, to avoid confrontations: Tuesday was also the 59th birthday of the popular army chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi in July. His supporters wanted to rally to praise the man they call "the lion of Egypt"; Morsi's backers, meanwhile, promised to descend on "all public squares" in protest.

Yet almost none of this materialised. Pro-Morsi protests were mostly confined to university campuses. Tamarod, the pro-army movement which organised the protests that preceded Morsi's ouster, cancelled its planned marches. A few dozen Sisi supporters took to Tahrir in the morning, only to be pushed out by a slightly larger group of revolutionaries.

"The crowd is not very big," acknowledged Ahmed Salah, a protester in the anti-Brotherhood, anti-military crowd. "The important thing is that we're making our voices heard."

But with an exhausted public and an interim government talking endlessly about stability, the voices in Tahrir on Tuesday struggled to find an audience. Spectators criticised the protests, state media described them as riven by vandals and infiltrators, and most people simply avoided politics and focused on the match (which Egypt won, 2-1, though it failed to score enough goals to qualify for the Cup).

Past betrayals

The last two Novembers have been dramatic months in Egypt, highlighting and exacerbating the country's political divisions. Days after the 2011 bloodletting on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, millions of people went to cast their ballots in parliamentary elections.

Protests in Cairo marking rallies anniversary turn violent

The Muslim Brotherhood, with its eyes on the polls, had refused to join the protests: The group's leaders worried that continued unrest could delay a vote they were tipped to win. Revolutionary groups saw this as a betrayal, a final break in the tactical alliance they forged with the Brotherhood during the January revolution.

The following year, Morsi issued a sweeping constitutional decree that granted him near-absolute power and shielded him from judicial oversight. He had been elected months earlier with the uneasy support of some liberal and revolutionary groups, who saw him as a better choice than his opponent, Hosni Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. But Morsi lost their support after issuing his decree, and never regained it, relying instead on a narrow support base during the final months before the military ousted him in July.

Despite the high expectations, Tuesday's events were somewhat more subdued, perhaps because the coup has already redrawn the country's political map.

Commemorations for the Mohamed Mahmoud victims started on Monday, when interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi inaugurated a hastily-built memorial in Tahrir Square for "the martyrs of the January 25 and June 30 revolutions". Work on the monument started late last week, with little public notice, and the brief unveiling ceremony took place before 9am.

"The people demanded, and God's will responded, and our valiant armed forces sided with the will of the people, culminating in the January 25 revolution which overthrew the regime, and ended decades of autocracy," Beblawi said from a podium erected in the square.

The monument survived for about 12 hours. On Monday night, a few hundred activists gathered in Abdeen Square in downtown Cairo to remember the "martyrs of the revolution". It was a striking sight: Nearly three years after Mubarak's resignation, the groups that overthrew him were relegated to an out-of-the-way square next to a rarely-used presidential palace that houses a museum. Asked about the choice of venue, several activists said simply that the "power dynamics" were not in their favour.

'Fifth column'

After a few hours, the crowd did march to Tahrir, where protesters sprayed anti-military and anti-Brotherhood graffiti on the monument and scratched off the inscription on its front. It was the first such protest in the square since Morsi's ouster.

"Tomorrow should be the memorial for the people who died since January 25," said Umm Mustafa, a mother at the Abdeen protest whose son was killed in 2011. "That memorial [in Tahrir] was built by the same people who killed them."

But the government, which has warned for days of a "fifth column" trying to sow unrest this week, quickly seized on the protest to prove its point. State and private television channels blamed the "vandalism" on "infiltrators" within the revolutionary groups; the official Al-Ahram newspaper said the monument was defaced by an unlikely alliance of Brotherhood supporters and Communists.

Sisi defends the nation. He defends them. These people [protesters] are garbage ... They should arrest these people.

- Fathi Nazif, spectator

It made the same argument on Tuesday, during a largely peaceful protest that was interrupted by several brief clashes. Riot police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse small groups of stone-throwing youth on the outskirts of the square; the government accused a "third party" of fomenting the violence.

Spectators watching in Tahrir seemed to agree with the official line. Fathi Nazif picked up a fragment of a Sisi poster that someone had torn apart. "Sisi defends the nation. He defends them," he said, angrily gesturing to the protesters. "These people [protesters] are garbage."

A woman walking through the square called the protesters "terrorists", a label that has frequently been applied to the Brotherhood and its supporters. "The government built this monument to inspire the people, and look how they treat it," she complained. Another gathered the rocks thrown near the Egyptian museum, and threw some of them back at protesters, cursing them for making a mess.

There is a widespread feeling that Egypt's status quo is unsustainable, with the country sharply polarised and gripped by an economic crisis.

Activists say they are waiting for a spark to push people back into the streets. But protests like Tuesday's seem unlikely to provide it, and in the short term they might even reinforce the government's dire warnings about instability.

"They should arrest these people," Nazif grumbled, before leaving the square.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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