Egypt’s interior ministry has eclipsed the US Embassy as a target of ongoing clashes in downtown Cairo sparked by a highly-controversial film that is being deemed offensive to Muslims.
Facing deep-rooted wrath, the protests are the first stern test of the interior ministry since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi assumed power.
Hundreds of demonstrators initially converged on the heavily-fortified US Embassy near the iconic Tahrir Square earlier this week to protest the US-made film "The Innocence of Muslim" that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a womaniser, a murderer and a fool.
Relentless clashes against police forces ensued, with protesters showing no signs of abating as confrontations left a 35-year-old man dead and more than 250 injured, including 53 security personnel.
While Islamists and die-hard football fans formed the backbone of Tuesday’s original protest, which saw members of Ultras White Knights (a group of Zamalek football club supporters) tear down the US flag at the embassy before burning it, they made way for a different type of youth the following few days.
Many of new protesters struggled to pinpoint the exact reasons for clashing with the Central Security Forces (CSF) when asked by the media, with the battle seemingly taking a new twist that has little to do with the US Embassy and much more with latent grievances against the interior ministry itself as clashes raged on in Tahrir Square, the cradle of last year’s revolution that toppled autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak.
Some hardcore activists who were on the frontlines during several clashes against the notorious CSF in the 17-month period of direct military rule believe there is no justification for the current violence.
“I’m tired of the absurd clashes that are taking place. I’m angry at my friends who are involved in the melee because I’m worried they might be harmed in a battle that nobody understands,” Mona Seif, a prominent revolutionary figure, said on Twitter.
One young protester seemed at a loss for words when asked by Ahram Online on the scene about his motives for taking part in the clashes. He simply replied, “For the prophet’s sake” when nudged by a fellow demonstrator.
Many of the chants have disabused the interior ministry and President Morsi, rather than the US and the anti-Islam film. Placards and banners bearing the name of Muhammad were nowhere to be seen during recent clashes.
Most political and media figures have condemned the protesters, including renowned writer Hamdi Kandil who surprisingly called on the police to use “excessive force” to deal with them.
The interior ministry is haunted by its uneasy relationship with several parties, including pro-democracy activists who often blamed it for heavy-handed tactics in cracking down on dissent, even after the fall of former strongman Mubarak.
The infamous Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes in November and the Cabinet battle in December 2011, both few metres away from Tahrir, were landmarks of a turbulent and at times violent transitional period under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
President Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, effectively assumed full powers after pensioning off SCAF leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in a stunning move last month, paving the way to bringing the interior ministry under his control.
He also sacked interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim, who was vilified for February’s Port Said football disaster that left over 70 fans dead, bringing in little-known Ahmed Gamal El-Din as his replacement.
However, happy is the country which has no history.
“There has been no real restructuring of the interior ministry, and that might be a reason that people are still angry,” retired police Brigadier-General Mahmoud Kotri told Ahram Online.
“Did anybody ask why the police officer is always singled out for hatred? Why people do not hate doctors, for example.
“The police have to exert much effort to repair their tarnished image and mend their relationship with citizens,” he added.
Ultras White Knights, which like almost all football fan groups in Egypt have a hostile relationship with the interior ministry, said its members have not taken part in the ongoing clashes, but the group still aimed a swipe at the ministry.
“We condemn and reject the continuation of the same repressive and unfruitful tactics used by security forces in dealing with such situations,” the group said on its Facebook page, underscoring tensions that increasingly grew following the Port Said tragedy.
Analysts say many parties have grasped the chance to serve their own interests and settle scores with their foes when people were charged up after the 13-minute film trailer for The Innocence of Muslims was released on YouTube.
Tahrir has simply become the battlefield for disgruntled people, rather than a destination to protest against the film, according to political analyst and journalist Ayman El-Sayyad.
“Some people grasped the chance to vent their anger,” he told Ahram Online.
“It’s revenge: Islamists against the US administration; revolutionaries against security forces; Salafists against the Muslim Brotherhood; and the marginalised against the reality in which they live.”
Protests are expected to gradually fade, but the deep-rooted wrath is likely to remain intact.
“As long as no one from the interior ministry is punished (for past human rights violations), some people will still be fuelled by anger and will take to the streets to engage in meaningless clashes with the ministry,” Mona Seif said.