Maspero: The revolution's new frontline

Bel Trew, Sunday 29 Jan 2012

While anniversary celebrations continue in Tahrir Square, protesters shift focus of ongoing revolution to Egypt's state television building in Maspero, where they continue to call for 'purge' of state media

Maspero sit-in
Protesters stage a sit-in outside of Maspero, the Egyptian state media building (Photo: Reuters)

The state-run Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU)’s headquarters in Cairo’s Maspero district has become the latest pressure point in the ongoing revolution, with the recent appearance of a growing encampment set up outside the building’s walls.

Since first-anniversary celebrations of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution last week, when a protest march moved from nearby Tahrir Square to Maspero, activists camped out in the area have continued to call for the "purge" of state media, which revolutionaries hold responsible for disseminating what they say is pro-regime propaganda.  

State media remains a primary target of recent revolutionary initiatives. For example, the popular if decentralised Kazeboon (“Liars”) public-awareness campaign aims to counteract discourse peddled by state-run media by screening footage – usually on busy streets and in public squares – of abuses committed by Egyptian security forces.

“The media is attempting to discredit the revolution by saying that we’re not protesters but thugs; that we’re not the people of the January 25 Revolution,” says Mahmoud, 21, a filmmaker who has been camped out in Maspero since Thursday. “Maspero is one of the most powerful places in Egypt. It broadcasts straight into everyone’s homes; it can control what the nation thinks.”

Notably, Maspero was also the scene of one of the bloodiest incidents since last year’s January revolution, when military personnel in October killed 27 Coptic-Christian protesters.

Frustrated by Wednesday’s anniversary festivities in Tahrir Square, many revolutionaries wanted to stage a new round of popular protests in hopes of ratcheting up pressure on the ruling military regime.

“We needed a new sit-in, as Tahrir is a bit of a lost cause right now,” says Mahmoud. “Since Tuesday night, the Islamists have been trying to co-opt it,” he added, referring to the recent appearance of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist activists in the flashpoint square – even though both groups had publically distanced themselves from a series of Tahrir Square sit-ins late last year.  

Since this 25 January, the region’s oldest state-run broadcasting organisation has become the scene of almost daily protests. On Thursday, some 3,000 people marched from Tahrir Square to Maspero, where many stayed overnight. During a “Second Day of Rage” on Friday, one of the marches initially scheduled to head to the square from Cairo’s Shubra district set out instead for the TV building.   

And on Saturday, a group of Egyptian paramedics parked around 40 ambulances next to the ongoing protest at Maspero to demand permanent contracts – a further sign that the area had become a new locus of Egypt’s post-Tahrir revolution.

Maspero currently hosts a full-fledged sit-in in which hundreds are taking part. The small strip of pavement between the Nile corniche and the TV building has become home to two large tents and a large banner reading, “Down with military rule.” One protester brandishes a hangman’s noose with a sign making reference to the still-ongoing trial of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Smaller tents are erected every evening, while food and tea vendors set up shop in increasing numbers.  

At night, groups crowd around small fires while others chant, “Leave!” and “The people demand the purge of state media!” Army soldiers and officers, meanwhile, peer at protesters from behind barbed wire set up around the building’s entrance.  

The building is heavily guarded with around a dozen soldiers permanently deployed along the barbed wire perimeter. Units from the interior ministry’s Central Security Forces (CSF) have also been stationed inside, changing shifts at approximately 5am – inevitably causing an uproar among protesters when the infamous blue CSF trucks roll in. Ten armoured personnel carriers sit around the back of the building.  

Every evening, Kazeboon footage is replayed on the walls of the television building. Hundreds of spectators join to watch key events, like the November clashes on Cairo’s Mohamed Mahmoud and Qasr Al-Aini streets.

“We watch the army try to avoid watching the Kazeboon films, ” says Ahmed, 20, an engineering student and Maspero protester. “It’s hard for them to see what they’re responsible for.”

On Friday, prominent Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, detained by the military after October’s Maspero clashes and a key proponent of the current sit-in, was interviewed by Egyptian state television inside the ERTU building. During the interview, Abd El-Fattah accused state television of systematically lying and trying to discredit Egypt’s ongoing revolution.

“We have officially sandwiched #Maspero,” tweeted protester Karim El-Hayawan at the time. “Protests on its outside and with Alaa from its inside… #Knockout.”  

Other familiar faces have also been seen at the new, post-Tahrir protest venue. Early Sunday morning at around 2:30am, Ramy Essam, the well-known revolutionary singer who was detained and tortured by the military last march, gave an impromptu concert for dozens of protesters. Half hour later, revolutionary activist and would-be presidential candidate Bothania Kamel joined the sit-in. Gamila Ismail, who unsuccessfully ran in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls as an independent candidate, has also been attending the protests on a daily basis.

In the meantime, getting the true story out to Egyptians outside Tahrir Square remains one of the biggest challenges faced by the revolutionaries, with many seeing the Maspero protests as the new frontline.

“Some people were protesting outside the defence ministry, but Maspero is more important,” insists Mahmoud. “In order to discredit an entire revolution, you have to lie to the people. And the easiest way to do that is to use the media through Maspero. That’s why we’re here – to stop this.”

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