Egypt’s youth activists largely stood by as two bitter foes embarked on bloody confrontations over the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
The Egyptian army, effectively assuming control of the country for the second time in less than three years, has been fighting tooth and nail with relentless Islamists since deposing Morsi on 3 July amid mass protests against his rule.
Many of the youth activists, feeling betrayed by the Islamists who were once dubbed “revolution partners,” believed the knock-out, drag-out fight was not really waged for a just cause.
They largely abandoned their favourite pitched battles in the streets, opting instead to verbally condemn violations committed by either side and pinning most of the blame on the “oppressive army-led state.”
But now that the heavy-handed tactics have come to the doorstep of the fundamental rights they earned by revolting in 2011 to unseat autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak, they are back on the streets.
“Many people did not go out on the streets because of the absence of a clear demand. But, after a while, things have become clear again. The state is still trying to preserve and renew its oppressive tools,” socialist activist Khaled Abdel-Hamid told Ahram Online.
“The interior ministry and all the security apparatuses are doing their utmost to exact revenge on the symbols of the January 2011 revolution,” added Abdel-Hamid, a 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.
Cat and mouse
Egypt’s interim rulers have killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and arrested most of the group’s leaders in a bid to quell unrest and dissent following Morsi's ouster.
Spared the cat-and-mouse game they used to play with youth activists in 2011, the authorities solely focused on their war with the Brotherhood, branding the Islamist group’s supporters either terrorists or brainwashed.
They took heart from popular support for their “war on terrorism” but, in what could prove to be a vital distraction, they opened a new battlefront that analysts suggest could somewhat blemish their image.
Signs of a new rift appeared on the second anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud clashes when violence between security forces and protesters left one dead near the iconic Tahrir Square on 19 November. Matters went from bad to worse when a controversial protest law was issued a few days later.
When a few hundred demonstrators converged on the Shura Council in downtown Cairo to protest an article in the new constitution that allows for military trials of civilians, they fell afoul of the new protest law after declining to seek police permission for the demonstration.
Dozens were arrested and beaten by security forces and female detainees were dropped off in the desert in the middle of the night, raising the stakes further and setting the tone for a fresh confrontation.
“State injustice, the new protest law, what happened to the youth activists in front of the Shura Council, the interior ministry’s disregard of the rule of law and the military trials article will bring many youths back to the streets,” said rights lawyer Gamal Eid, the director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI).
“They are now holding the same old slogans of ‘down with the military rule’. The interior ministry will cause serious friction between the people and the current government,” he added.
Two leading activists, April 6 founder Ahmed Maher and pro-democracy campaigner Alaa Abdel-Fattah, were also detained on charges of inciting protests.
Change in tone
Many political actors who had repeatedly distanced themselves from any Brotherhood protests are publicly mobilising their supporters in anticipation of the 2011 revolution's third anniversary in January.
They still insist they would never ally with the Brotherhood, but their calls to “topple the regime” mark a significant change of tone for the political forces who supported the 30 June protests to oust Morsi.
April 6 Youth Movement and Kazeboon (Liars) campaign, which was established to expose army violations two years ago and continued to oppose Morsi during his reign, wrote “25/1/2014” on their Facebook pages in an eye-catching build-up.
“We thought 30 June would correct the course of the revolution, and the army, which killed people before, had changed and become more inclined towards having a peripheral political role,” April 6 said in a statement.
“After the huge amount of blood that was shed, we thought the army now believed in a democratic state that promotes social justice.
“But days have proved that they are similar to their predecessors and they are relentlessly attempting to breathe life into the corrupt and oppressive state,” added the group, which played a key role in galvanising the protests that sealed the fate of Mubarak in February 2011.
A key question remains over whether youth activists, whose protests two years ago heaped immense pressure on the army, will be equally successful this time around, given the huge popularity of military chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi.
Ongoing demonstrations are often interrupted by army sympathisers and passersby, underlining the huge task facing the energetic youth.
“It’s clear that the government’s popularity is declining. The killing of protesters on the streets supports the cause of the revolutionaries, who are gradually gaining momentum,” said Eid.
Activist Abdel-Hamid also pointed to the defiant nature of the protesters, saying that the “revolutionary impetus” remains intact.
“People will continue to demonstrate, no matter what,” he added.