The last thing Ahmed Harara saw before being shot by a rubber bullet in his good eye in the early hours of 20 November 2011 were clashes between the police and demonstrators in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square.
“The moment I was shot I raised my arm and cried my other eye is gone,” says 33-year-old Harara. “A young Muslim Brotherhood member pulled me from the ground, took me to hospital and stayed with me till the morning. His name is Mahmoud Al-Garhi.”
Harara had lost his other eye earlier the same year, during the 18 days of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Since he lost his sight the onetime dentist’s life has changed dramatically. Today he works in a human rights organisation on the file of people with disabilities. He doesn’t think marking the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud protests on 19 November is a good idea.
“It could serve as a trap,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. Today activists are expected to support the military regime, he says. If they oppose it they’re deemed Muslim Brotherhood and that means they can be quashed.
“Both sides want to take advantage of the anniversary and revolutionaries might end up paying the price.”
Two years ago a small number of demonstrators, the majority suffering injuries or disabilities sustained during the revolution that led to Mubarak’s overthrow, began a sit-in in Tahrir Square demanding support from the post-revolution government. When police attempted to disperse them violently in the small hours of 19 November thousands of protesters joined them in solidarity.
A full-fledged confrontation with the security forces ensued. Tahrir was transformed into a war zone after police fired massive amounts of tear gas. The clashes moved to the entrance of Mohamed Mahmoud Street.
Forty-seven protesters were killed and approximately 3,000 injured.
The Interior Ministry denied using live bullets.
A video filmed on the ground and widely circulated online showed at least one police officer being congratulated by his colleagues for shooting protesters in the eye. Images of military officers piling dead bodies with garbage were published in various newspapers, exposing the army’s complicity in the deaths.
The term al-dakhlia baltagiya (Interior Ministry are thugs) was suddenly on everybody’s lips.
The standoff lasted for days and was a turning point in Egypt’s post-revolution trajectory. The then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was dragging its feet over setting a date for a presidential poll. Parliamentary elections were due but the generals refused to timetable presidential elections which would usher them from power.
As the protests grew in size, the death toll increased and chants for the “execution” of SCAF commander Hussein Tantawi reverberated in central Cairo.
The military finally scheduled presidential elections for June 2012.
Young members of the Muslim Brotherhood took part in the Mohamed Mahmoud protests but not in any organisational capacity. The Brotherhood earned the ire of many revolutionaries by refusing to support the protesters. The group’s leaders saw the demonstrations as an attempt to thwart the parliamentary elections they were so keen to contest.
Two years later the tables have turned in an ironic twist of fate.
The military removed Mohamed Morsi as president amid mass protests against his rule and is trying him for inciting murder.
The group’s leadership and thousands of its members are in prison. Their numbers continue to swell with those rounded up in security raids. More than 1,000 supporters of Morsi were killed in August when police broke up a sit-in east of Cairo.
Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and a military backed government now run the country. The state of emergency and curfew declared on 14 August and ended 14 November is expected to be replaced by a handful of laws — regulating protests, countering terrorism and banning graffiti — which 20 rights groups say will “reinstate the police state."
Such factors should make the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud massacres an occasion to protest against the regime.
But that’s unlikely, say activists, given how easy it would be for the military and Brotherhood to hi-jack the event.
The Kamel Gemeelak (Finish Your Good Deed) campaign which is collecting signatures urging El-Sisi to run for president says it will take to the streets on 19 November to show the people’s solidarity with the military and police.
Officials have been silent but there is widespread speculation that pro-military calls circulating on social media to mark the event by paying homage to the victims and their families are a test balloon by the authorities.
The "Anti-Coup" Alliance — a network of Islamist parties, including the Brotherhood, formed after Morsi’s ouster — hasn’t announced any plans to mark the day.
But given the alliance has held regular marches and protests since August, many fear any protest by Morsi supporters could overlap, intentionally or not, with other demonstrations commemorating the battle.
Insiders say the [Brotherhood] will not join protests in the area and might simply issue a statement condemning police brutality.
“Neither party has any right to commemorate Mohamed Mahmoud, which was against the Interior Ministry and injustice,” says Khaled Abdel-Hamid, a socialist activist and member of the Way of the Revolution Front, founded in September as a third political force opposed to both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The front one of the main groups mobilising for the anniversary.
“During their time in power the Brotherhood didn’t purge the Interior Ministry and Morsi regularly thanked the police in his speeches,” adds Abdel-Hamid.
Little has been disclosed about what is being planned for the anniversary.
“We’d rather wait and see what the military intends to do before we make our own plans public,” says Way of the Revolution Front member Haitham Mohamadein, part of the team organising events for the anniversary.
One of the few things to be made public is the call for a graffiti day, in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and elsewhere, in defiance of a draft law seeking to ban graffiti.
There is talk of protests and/or a march though “we might opt for something on the 18th instead,” says Harara.
The real dilemma for revolutionaries is that the current political impasse which is both complex and volatile. The conditions that compelled thousands to join anti-police/military protests in November 2011 and force SCAF to hand over power not only exist today but are, if anything, more exacerbated. Yet, they aren’t provoking the same energy.
The military appears to enjoy considerable public support, though many are simply tired of political instability and a security vacuum that has taken a heavy toll on the economy.
A lot of shifting has taken place since Morsi’s removal. Liberals and leftists who once opposed the military now support it against the Brotherhood. Islamists who sided with the military during their time in power are now its victims and main opponents.
There have been mass resignations from the liberal Dostour and Socialist Popular Alliance parties to protest against their parties’ leaders’ alliance with the military and support of the Interior Ministry.
“The opposition is in a quandary,” says Mohamed Othman, a member of the Strong Egypt Party’s politburo and of the Way of The Revolution.
“It can’t mobilise the street as it did two years ago in Mohamed Mahmoud and it can’t join forces with the pro-Morsi camp which has the largest number of protesters. We won’t kid ourselves.”
Increasing numbers of activists and politicians are shifting away from any alliance with the military and want to end their involvement in politics, Othman said.
“But this isn’t being translated into anything on the ground," he added.
On Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the walls of the American University in Cairo, adjacent schools, shops and the walls between buildings form an extended mural which tells the story of the last three years.
There are young faces of martyrs from the January Revolution; football fans killed in the sports stadium in Port Said; victims of clashes with the military in Abbasiya; a journalist killed in anti-Brotherhood protests; a Sheikh and a Copt killed reportedly by the military; poetry about the revolution and Palestine; a young street vendor killed by a conscript.
Some of the martyrs are painted with wings, some without.
A painted plaque next to one AUC entrance renames Mohamed Mahmoud Sharie Al-Oyoun (The street of Eyes) in commemoration of the victims of the trigger happy snipers who targeted the eyes of protesters.
Whatever happens next week remains to be seen.
Harara, though, knows what he will be doing — contacting the families of the 47 killed in Mohamed Mahmoud.
“Nobody cares about their names or remembers them,” he says. “But then it’s always unknown who make history.”
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly