Yesterday marked the first mass protest in Tahrir Square since the start of Ramadan over a month ago. The military abandoned the square for 24 hours to allow the demonstration, promising to re-seize afterwards. Making the most of this window, activists labeled the day ‘gomAa taSHeeH al-masaar’ (the Friday of the correction of the path’), alluding to their hope of reclaiming a revolution that many believe is slipping out of their hands, if it hasn’t done already.
Walking into Tahrir Square, past the activists checking bags and IDs, you’re struck by a distinct lack of police (in uniform anyway) and a mass of waving flags. Most of these are Egyptian flags waved defiantly yet still joyously by revolutionaries. However, it’s the other flags present that provide insights into the disparate groups to be found in the square. Showing that even without the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists, Egyptian revolutionaries are a vast and heterogeneous group.
Flags of the other North African revolutionary states were evident with many Tunisian and the new (old) Libyan flag. Indeed, one man had both of these flags with the Egyptian one on one pole because, he said, he saw them as ‘one revolution’. There were also a small band of men waving the old UAR flag that represented the union of Egypt and Syria and were chanting Arab nationalist slogans whilst holding up photos of the former president and champion of Arab nationalism Gamal Abdel Nasser. There were also Saudi Arabian flags on sale but it seemed that none of these had been bought, maybe the seller wasn’t aware that the Salafists had planned to stay at home.
As well as national flags there were various banners of domestic associations and groups, particularly youth activist groups. The most prominent of these was the banner of a white fist against a black background of the April 6th movement that was inspired by the Serbian anti- Milošević movement Otpor! Talking to activists you got the sense that they were angry that the revolution had not been completed but were confident that it would be. Many of their members expressed the traditional left-wing sentiments that many supposed were dead in the Middle East, describing the revolution in terms of class warfare and the rise of the oppressed against their oppressors. Indeed, one activist eagerly asked me whether the revolution had been an inspiration for the London riots and expressed disappointment when I confessed that I hadn’t seen any Egyptian flags present in London last month. He then stated that he would support any means necessary of ensuring that the state ‘did was it was supposed to do’ for the people of Tottenham and Croydon. He didn’t say whether the same applied to Egypt.
One activist expressed her concern about protest days such as this as the need to be seen to be involved ‘prevents groups from actually doing anything’. However the level of unity and common purpose between the groups was admirable and seemed important given the obstacles they’re facing. Indeed, most of the people present were wearing stickers ‘No! I’m against military trials of civilians’ in Arabic in reference to many thousands (estimates are at 12,000) that have been tried in recent months.
Two of the other most prominent flags were those of arch-rival football groups the Ultras of the Al-ahly team and the White Knights of competitor club Zemalek. Interestingly enough, given their long history of hatred, these groups seem more like allies than enemies. At their most recent match the Ultras had got into a fight with the police and were then aided in their scuffles by the White Knights. Thus a new friendship was born, one that had been unthinkable before. As one ultra put it, it is ‘like seeing Jews and Muslims dancing together in the street.’
Which leads to the last type of banner present, those reflecting the marked anti-Israeli sentiment. There were many signs criticizing Mubarak’s policy towards Israel and when one speaker called for the suspension of the sale of gas to Israel the crowd cheered with approval. There was even a banner stating in English that ‘Israel does not exist’. Such sentiment does not only represent the outrage felt throughout the Middle East at the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians but also a rejection of the former regime’s foreign policy, or lack thereof. Mubarak was seen as a puppet of the USA and Israel and it would be expected that revolutionary voices would reject such a model, particularly as it was built on a liberal capitalist economic policy that most of them so strongly reject.
The protests then moved on with various marches towards the Ministry of the interior and the Israeli embassy. We were told that it wouldn’t be safe for us to take part as there were persistent rumours that Western spies were in the midst of the protestors seeking to pervert the revolution. We took the advice of our Egyptian friends. Sadly what followed was a level of violence that had seemed unthinkable during the day. In the now infamous riot outside the Israeli embassy another flag was introduced to our story, as protestors tore down the Israeli flag from outside the embassy and several others were burnt. The state of alert that has been imposed makes the revolutionaries hopes of ‘correcting the path’ seem further away than ever.