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Mohamed Mahmoud Street, 1 year on: Changing the course of Egypt's revolution

Last year's clashes on Cairo's Mohamed Mahmoud Street opened new rifts between Egypt's diverse political forces. But they also served to alter the country's post-revolution political trajectory

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Wednesday 21 Nov 2012
Mohamed Mahmoud 2011
Mass demonstrations against military rule follow Mohamed Mahmoud clashes November 2011(Photo: Mai Shaheen)

The five days from 19 to 24 November are remembered by some as the "second wave" of the Egyptian revolution, the ramifications of which made a considerable impact on Egypt's political life.

For most of the hundreds of thousands of protesters who turned up in Tahrir Square in the aftermath of a violent police crackdown on a peaceful sit-in, the incident was a provocative reminder that Egypt’s long-time police state still had fangs. It was also a sign that Egypt's then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had become less tolerant of protests, after several deadly crackdowns and arbitrary arrests that began only weeks after the generals took charge of the country's affairs.

Police raided the square and beat protesters. Anger over the blatant brutality drove hundreds of activists into the square, where protesters – who soon numbered in the thousands – managed to push security forces out of the square after a battle that featured teargas, birdshot and rock throwing.

Clashes persisted, however, on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near the interior ministry headquarters, even after Tahrir Square was cleared. The subsequent fighting went on for five days, resulting in the death of over 40 protesters and the injury of thousands – the deadliest incident since 28 January 2011, at the height of Egypt's Tahrir Square uprising.

The SCAF and the Revolution: A wasted opportunity?

Prior to the clashes, activists and revolutionary groups increasingly criticised the military after a series of crackdowns on peaceful protesters, many of whom were dragged before military tribunals. Nevertheless, the SCAF still had the popular support that it had enjoyed since Mubarak’s ouster.

During the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, however, the SCAF was believed to be at its weakest, as protesters thronged Tahrir Square in the hundreds of thousands – the largest demonstration since the day Mubarak stepped down some nine months earlier.

"The events of Mohamed Mahmoud were definitely a factor in forcing the SCAF to announce a timeline for relinquishing power," political scholar Sameh Fawzi told Ahram Online. "They showed the military that they were not in control of the revolution and that their grip on decision-making was not as strong as they thought."

On 22 November, amid the ongoing violence, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi vowed to hand over power to an elected president by 30 June. The military had until that point failed to provide a clear-cut schedule for holding presidential elections, and once even hinted that it might remain in power until a new constitution was adopted.

At the time, many revolutionaries believed that protesters should press their advantage by demanding nothing less than the SCAF's immediate departure.

"When political forces negotiate with the authorities, they often soften the demands being articulated on the street," Chayma Hassabo, political science researcher on Egypt's political movement at College De France, told Ahram Online. "The clashes might have been a wasted opportunity to force the military council – which was at the nadir of its popularity – to relinquish power there and then."

"The problem was that this was not a common demand by all political forces, as had been the case during the Tahrir Square uprising when everyone called for Mubarak's ouster," Hassabo added. "What's more, political parties' preoccupation with upcoming parliamentary elections might have hindered the revolutionary process from applying more pressure on the military council."

Brotherhood vs. Revolutionaries: Irreconcilable differences?

The fact that the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes happened in the run-up to Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections strongly influenced the dynamics of Egypt’s post-revolution political arena.

The parliamentary polls – slated for 28 November – had been long awaited by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest opposition force throughout the Mubarak era.

The Brotherhood had refrained from directly supporting the Mohamed Mahmoud protesters, repeatedly stating that it would not participate in the protests "to avoid sowing further chaos." The Brotherhood's stance on the clashes prompted a rift between the Islamist group and more secular-minded revolutionaries – a rift some have described as irrevocable.

"This rift began early after the [Tahrir Square] uprising. But the rift that happened during Mohamed Mahmoud presaged Egypt's political future, regarding different ideas of what the revolution itself stood for," said Fawzi. "While the Brotherhood saw the upcoming elections as a revolutionary achievement that had to be safeguarded, the revolutionaries continued to look to Tahrir Square and mass protests as the only means of achieving revolutionary legitimacy."

"The Brotherhood's focus on the parliamentary polls, however, opened the group up to criticism that its only concern was with attaining political power," he added.

Notably, the very first anti-Muslim Brotherhood chants – many of which are still heard in demonstrations today – were first heard during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. "It was at this point that the revolutionaries' opposition to the Islamists, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, transcended mere ideological differences," said Hassabo.

But the Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, viewed free parliamentary polls as the ultimate revolutionary achievement, and feared that the clashes were being instigated with a view to derailing Egypt's post-revolution march towards democracy.

"We were about to achieve one of the revolution's chief demands [i.e., free elections], one that we had long been planning for," said Ahmed Okeil, leading member of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. "Why should we have abandoned all this and pursued another achievement that we may or may not have been able to attain? There is no political decision that will satisfy everyone."

Okeil continued: "The Mohamed Mahmoud clashes forced the military to provide a timetable for leaving power. This, along with free parliamentary polls – which were necessary for ensuring the continuation of the revolution – helped end a phase that might have brought the revolution back to square one."

The rise of the 'Revolutionary Islamists'

Although Egypt's two largest Islamist groups – the Brotherhood and Egypt's Salafist Front – did not take part in the events of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Tahrir Square at the time was hardly without an Islamist presence.

The Salafist Front, a post-revolution coalition of younger Salafist groups, actively participated in the protests under the leadership of prominent Salafist figure Hazem Abu-Ismail, who later almost became a contender for the presidency. "Abu-Ismail and the Salafist Front certainly employed strong rhetoric against the SCAF and were among the loudest voices in support of the protesters," said Fawzi.

While the Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour Party stayed out of the fray, the Salafist Front's presence on Mohamed Mahmoud alongside protesters gave rise to a new, hybrid Islamist current. "This current garnered support from many non-Islamist forces, at a time when the Muslim Brotherhood appeared to be appeasing the military council," said Fawzi.

"Abu-Ismail's motives for demanding the military leave power were different from those driving the protesters and revolutionary groups," Fawzi added. "Abu-Ismail might have seen it as a way of drumming up popular support and establishing Islamist rule, since it appeared that no other political group was ready to take power at the time."

Abu-Ismail, for his part, upon his arrival to Tahrir Square on the second day of the clashes, said he had only come to "prevent further bloodshed" by encouraging his followers to join protesters in the square and deter police from launching a violent crackdown.

Abu-Ismail managed to draw millions of supporters for his presidential campaign, but was later disqualified from Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential race for legal reasons. He is currently in the process of establishing a new political party.

The Salafist Front, too, established its own political party in October, vowing to achieve outstanding revolutionary demands – demands, some say, that its Muslim Brotherhood counterparts have forgotten.

"In retrospect, the significance of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes has to do with Egypt's political psychology rather than with specific events," said Fawzi. "The significance of what happened one year ago will take years to quantify."

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