Since the announcement of the constitutional declaration by President Mohamed Morsi that granted his office unfettered authorities, Egypt has seen a massive outpouring of opposition in the streets and a series of violent clashes involving security forces and both pro- and ant-Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
The resulting turmoil has seen each side lay claim to revolutionary legitimacy, with both rushing to assert their innocence of any wrongdoing.
Two days after clashes erupted between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and anti-Morsi protesters in Mahalla's Al-Shoan Square, the reality on the ground remains as murky as ever. Teargas was liberally used on the crowds still gathered in the square Wednesday night, as street battles erupted between Central Security Forces (CSF) and anti-police demonstrators.
The proximity of the clashes to the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)’s offices belies what appears to be a settling of scores between the security apparatus and those opposed to it. Eventually, riot police pulled back and the crowd – rather than converge on the now unguarded FJP offices – dispersed.
Accounts given by those on both sides of Tuesday’s clashes are completely contradictory, further fuelling mounting ill-will between the Brotherhood and allied Islamist groups and a less coherent coalition of groups united in opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood, President Morsi and the latter's recent constitutional declaration.
Ahmed Zaki El-Qatan, former MP and acting Nour Party secretary-general in the Gharbiya governorate, who says he witnessed – but didn't participate in – Tuesday's clashes, says that hundreds of revolutionary youth and thugs gathered in Al-Shoan Square to march on the FJP's nearby headquarters.
Meanwhile, Mohamed Asaad, a worker from the nearby Misr for Spinning and Textile factory, stresses that he and some two hundred fellow workers – along with other anti-Brotherhood protesters – had opted not to march on the party's headquarters.
The ransacking of FJP offices in Alexandria and in other governorates last weekend further escalated tensions.
Yet it remains unclear who instigated the Mahalla violence, which left more than a hundred injured (although reports vary on the exact number of wounded), with both sides pointing the finger at one another.
Tanta University student Mohamed Mostafa recounts a series of peaceful ant-Morsi marches that began at 2pm on Tuesday, eventually converging on Mahalla’s flashpoint square:
"We returned to Al-Shoan Square, which is our Tahrir, chanting 'Down with Morsi', 'Down with the Supreme Guide [of the Muslim Brotherhood]' and against last week's illegitimate constitutional decree, but we were surprised to find that, without incitement, the Brotherhood began attacking us with stones, knives and birdshot, firing fireworks at head level."
Mostafa describes highly disciplined Brotherhood and pro-Islamist cadres, organised into helmeted militias bearing sacks and fruit carts brimming with stones.
The other camp, however, strenuously denies this account of Tuesday's melee.
"Revolutionary youth, along with thugs, marched on the FJP's headquarters with the intention of storming it," El-Qatan recounts. "A struggle began and the revolutionaries returned to the square. Stones were thrown back and forth."
"What surprised us, however, was that the infiltrators among the revolutionaries began firing homemade birdshot at us," he added. "With birdshot and Molotov cocktails, the clashes escalated."
Both sides allege the presence of known thugs-for-hire among their opponent's ranks. Both sides say the authorities responded slowly to their calls for help. And both sides claim popular and revolutionary legitimacy.
"I wasn’t there, but when people gather in front of the headquarters, and threats have already been made against it, and when thugs attack with clubs and birdshot, and when the police don't respond to the situation until after three or four hours later, these are all clear indicators," says Alaa Azab, a former MP for the FJP from the Gharbiya governorate.
"Look at who was injured," El-Qatan stressed when asked about the conflicting narratives. "The majority were Brotherhood members."
Yet according to Mahalla worker Asaad, "The ambulances were standing on their side, not ours. The government is standing with [the Brotherhood and Islamists]. When security forces intervened, they shot at us, not them."
Mostafa asserts that young men on motorcycles were called in to transport the large number of injured, since ambulances were parked near the FJP's headquarters.
As of press time, doctors at the local hospital were unavailable for comment.
In the absence of nonpartisan accounts of the incident, the truths interspersed in Mahalla's contradictory narratives point to a deepening divide between the Brotherhood and their Islamist allies on one side and the rest of Egypt's political forces on the other. With both sides digging in ahead of rival mass rallies planned for this weekend, Egypt can expect stormy times ahead.