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Egypt's divisions starker than ever

Three years after the revolution which swept Hosni Mubarak from power, Egyptian society remains torn between loyalties.

Last updated: 27 Jan 2014 07:15
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Tanks block Tahrir Square after fatal clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt's military [AFP]

Cairo, Egypt - For the second time in two weeks, Egyptians flocked to the streets in Cairo on January 25 to cheer the army-backed interim government. Nominally they came down to Tahrir Square to mark the third anniversary of the start of the 2011 revolution, the 18-day revolt that eventually overthrew longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Yet there was almost no mention of it.

Demonstrators said little about social justice or human rights, the drivers of the revolution; they carried no portraits of the more than 800 Egyptians who lost their lives during those few weeks. Gone was the freewheeling political debate, the array of chants and flags and posters.

The acceptable political space in Tahrir had shrunk to encompass a single point of view, perhaps only a single man. Crowds cheered their support for General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the popular defence minister who last summer led the ousting of another president, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first short-lived experiment with a democratically elected ruler. Vendors hawked posters with the army chief's face superimposed on a lion.

It all felt something less than spontaneous, with choreographed dance routines and army helicopters overhead dropping Egyptian flags. But it also reflected a very real political trend: After three years of post-revolutionary chaos, and six months of escalating violence across the country, many people are ready to throw in their lot with the army.

"The revolution has brought us chaos, strife, and for what? Freedom? I want the freedom to leave my house without fear," said Hoda Badry, a housewife marching to the square with a crowd of about 20 people.

The same was true less than two weeks ago, when millions turned out to vote for a new constitution drafted by the same interim government. More than 98 percent of the 20 million Egyptians who turned out to vote said "yes" to a ballot that many described as a referendum on Sisi himself.

That Saturday's rally came on the anniversary of a revolt against another military man, an air force commander-turned-president, struck few as ironic. "Sisi is not Mubarak. We got rid of the corruption, the dictatorship, but we could not survive either under the Muslim Brotherhood," the group from which Morsi hails, said Wagdy Imam, a hotel worker.

'The people defy terrorism'

Yet there were also signs of discontent all around, on the fringes of Tahrir and at bloody opposition protests at which dozens were killed.

Sisi, or whoever becomes Egypt's next president, will take over a country plagued not only by insecurity but also a stagnant economy. He will manage that country from atop a much narrower power base than Mubarak, who cobbled together a coalition of security institutions, business interests, even the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood.

Away from the fireworks and crowds, the anniversary was a violent affair, Egypt's deadliest day in three months, with most of the victims members of that no-longer-tolerated Brotherhood.

The health ministry said 49 people were killed, while rights groups put the death toll higher. Most were killed in two Cairo neighbourhoods, Alf Maskan and Matariya, where hundreds of Morsi supporters had gone to protest.

The violence barely registered in the official narrative of the day. "The people defy terrorism and celebrate in the squares," proclaimed the flagship state-run newspaper Al-Ahram, making no mention of the deaths on its front page.

But it will surely register with a population already rattled by a low-level insurgency. On Friday, a series of four bombs went off across the capital, killing six people and injuring dozens more. One of them sheared off the facade of the Cairo security directorate, a building that is supposed to be heavily guarded. Others went off near a metro station and a cinema.

Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based group that has carried out several high-profile attacks in recent months, took responsibility for all four.

In Tahrir, though, many Egyptians dismissed the group's very existence. "That's just a name for the Brotherhood," one man argued. Television anchors have called the group "Ansar Bait al-Morshid", the partisans of the supreme guide, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, while a newspaper described them as the "militias of Khairat al-Shater", the Brotherhood's jailed financier and strategist.

As yet, there are no conclusive links between the two groups, and the Brotherhood has condemned the bombings. But in a statement issued on Saturday night, the Brotherhood-led Anti-Coup Alliance seemed to hint that it was losing control over its followers amid a deepening crackdown.

"[There is] mounting anger among the popular rebellious masses after the crimes of the coup's militias," the group said, and though it urged supporters to stay peaceful, it acknowledged [Ar]: "They look for retribution."



'The world has gone crazy'

The crackdown has, meanwhile, now spread far beyond the Brotherhood and its supporters. A group of liberal activists, opponents of both Morsi and the army, tried to stage several rallies across the capital on Saturday. All of them were quickly dispersed.

At one, in the Ma'adi district, police arrested Nazly Hussein, an activist who has worked tirelessly on behalf of political detainees. Outside the journalists' syndicate downtown, at a second protest, police shot dead a member of the April 6 youth movement, prompting the group to call its supporters off the streets.

An Egyptian journalist and a translator from the United States were arrested last week and detained incommunicado for three days by the state security agency, accused of "threatening national stability". The translator has since been released. Prosecutors have also in recent weeks opened investigations into a puppet and Pepsi [Ar], both on charges of incitement.

On Tala'at Harb Street, blocks away from Tahrir, a security guard sat outside a branch of a Qatari-owned bank clutching a Sisi poster. Qatar was a staunch supporter of Morsi and the Brotherhood, and is viewed by many Egyptians today as an enemy state. "I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea," the guard said, declining to give his name.

A little further up the road, Hany Abdelfattah sat by his parked cab, warily watching the crowds streaming into Tahrir. He shooed away a vendor who approached him selling flags.

"The world has gone crazy. What are these people doing? An Egyptian flag? What do I need an Egyptian flag for? I can't eat it," he asked. "We need bread, we need money."

Due to security concerns amid the arrest of Al Jazeera journalists working in Egypt, we are not naming our correspondent in Cairo.

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Al Jazeera
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