Written by Reva Bhalla
The last time I visited Cairo, prior to the ouster of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a feeling of helplessness pervaded the streets. Young Egyptian men spent the hot afternoons in shisha cafes complaining about not being able to get married because there were no jobs available. Members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would shuffle from apartment to apartment in the poorer districts of Cairo trying to dodge arrest while stressing to me in the privacy of their offices that patience was their best weapon against the regime.
The Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist organization, could be seen in places where the government was glaringly absent in providing basic services, consciously using these small openings to build up support among the populace in anticipation of the day that a power vacuum would emerge in Cairo for them to fill. Meanwhile the Copts, comprising some 10 percent of Egypt’s 83 million people, stuck tightly together, proudly brandishing the crosses tattooed on their inner wrists in solidarity against their Muslim countrymen. Each of these fault lines was plainly visible to any outsider willing to venture beyond the many five-star hotels dotting Cairo’s Nile Corniche or the expatriate-filled island of Zamalek, but any prediction on when these would rupture was obscured by the omnipresence and effectiveness of the Egyptian security apparatus.
When I returned to Cairo the weekend of Oct. 9, I caught a firsthand glimpse of the rupture. The feeling of helplessness on the streets that I had witnessed a short time before had been replaced with an aggressive sense of self-entitlement. Scores of political groupings, spread across a wide spectrum of ideologies with wildly different agendas, are desperately clinging to an expectation that elections, scheduled to begin in November, will compensate them for their sacrifices. Many groups also believe that they now have history on their side and the momentum to challenge any obstacles in their way — including Egypt’s still-powerful security apparatus. The sectarian rioting that broke out Oct. 9 was a display of how those assumptions are grinding against reality.
Sunday, Oct. 9, began calmly in Cairo. Though Egyptian opposition forces are growing more vocal in their discontent with Egypt’s interim military government, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the main demonstrations have been taking place a few hours after Friday prayers — and declining in size with each passing week. People spent Sunday afternoon going about their daily business as remnants of previous demonstrations lay strewn on the sidewalks. I noticed graffiti spray-painted on the walls encircling Tahrir Square that depicted SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi with lines struck across his face. The top-selling items for Tahrir Square sidewalk vendors were Arab Spring memorabilia, from flags to armbands to anti-Mubarak stickers. Frustrated merchants meanwhile looked on from their empty shops, visibly hurting from the drastic reduction in tourist traffic since the demonstrations began in January.
A friend was scheduled to pick me up from my hotel near Tahrir Square on Sunday evening, but he called to tell me he would be late because of a major traffic jam on the October 6 Bridge between my hotel and the Maspero district, northwest of Tahrir Square. I received another call 20 minutes later telling me that Coptic demonstrations at the state television and radio station in Maspero had spiraled out of control and that elements within the demonstration had begun firing at soldiers patrolling the area.
This was highly unusual. While Copts have organized several demonstrations at the Maspero station to express their frustration at the state for allegedly ignoring increasing attacks on their churches, these have been mostly nonviolent. Most alarming, however, was that elements within the demonstrations were targeting army soldiers. It is still unknown whether the armed perpetrators were Copts themselves or elements of some other faction, but the incident escalated a routine Coptic demonstration into full-scale sectarian riots.
I left my hotel and headed for Maspero.
As I made my way out to the October 6 Bridge, at least a dozen armored personnel carriers and buses full of soldiers whizzed past me toward Maspero. By then, word had spread near Tahrir Square that riots had broken out, prompting mostly young men to come out to the square, gather their friends, hang Egyptian flags from the trees and prepare for the unrest to make it to the city center. I convinced a taxi driver to get me close to Maspero and saw, from a mile away, flames and smoke emanating from cars and armored vehicles that demonstrators had set ablaze. As I neared the crowd, scores of mostly young Muslim men pushed their way past me carrying large wooden sticks and whatever rudimentary weapons they could fashion out of household kitchen items. Walking in groups of three or more with a confident swagger, they told everyone along the way that Copts were killing Muslims and soldiers and called on others to take revenge. The reality at this point did not matter; the mere perception that Copts were killing soldiers and Muslims was all that was needed for Muslim mobs to rally. While this was happening, state media was broadcasting messages portraying the Copts as the main perpetrators.
The crowd in Maspero was only about 1,500 people by my estimation, but a growing Muslim mob was pushing it deeper into downtown toward Tahrir Square. From where I and several other observers were standing, many of the Muslim rioters at first seemed able to pass through the military barricade to confront the Copts without much trouble. After some time had passed and the army reinforcements arrived, the military started playing a more active role in trying to contain the clashes, with some footage showing an armored vehicle plowing through the crowd. Some rioters claimed that Salafists from a nearby district had arrived and were chanting, “Islamiyyah, Islamiyyah,” while others parroted state media claims about “foreign elements” being mixed in with the demonstrators. As the night wore on, the scene of the riots split into roughly three sections: the Muslims on one side, the military in the middle and the Copts on the other.
This was not the best environment for a woman, especially one without an Egyptian ID card. A member of the security forces put a gun to the chest of a young, Egyptian-born female reporter, accusing her of being a foreign spy, before a group of young men came between her and her assailant, pulling her back and insisting she was Egyptian. The Muslim mob badly beat at least two young Coptic women in the crowd, after which throngs of young Coptic men gathered to take revenge. A Copt alone on the wrong side of the army barricade became an immediate target, and I watched as scores of Muslim men carried one Coptic man after another into dark alleyways. These men likely contributed most to the final civilian death count. Cars with crosses hanging from their rearview mirrors were attacked with incendiary devices, their windows smashed.
Not everyone in the area had subscribed to the mob mentality, however. On a number of occasions, I saw groups of young men trying to pull women back from the crowd, warning them of the consequences if they ventured any deeper into the mob. I saw one Coptic woman fighting off a large group of men twice her size that was trying to prevent her from going into the crowd. As she fought them off one by one, the crowd around her gave up; she was determined to join the demonstration at any cost.
The sectarian clashes continued through the night as the army tried to impose a curfew and restore order to the streets. By the end of the night, most reports claimed that three soldiers and 22 civilians had been killed, in addition to scores of injuries.
The next day was eerily quiet in normally bustling downtown Cairo. Many people, fearing a repeat of the previous night’s rioting, stayed home, reducing traffic to a trickle. The frames of burnt cars remained in the streets through the evening. However, all was not quiet; Central Security Forces deployed to predominantly Coptic areas of Cairo to contain clashes that had already begun to break out between Muslims and Copts who were leading processions to transfer the bodies from the hospital to the morgue.
What struck me most about the riots was the polarization on the streets when it came to the general perception of the military. On the one hand, I saw crowds along the street cheering in support of the army as armored vehicles and buses filled with soldiers made their way to the scene of the conflict. For many in Egypt, the army is still viewed as the guarantor of stability and the most promising path toward the level of calm needed in the streets to bring the country back to health after months of upheaval. However, various opposition groups in Cairo, increasingly disillusioned with the military’s crackdowns since Mubarak’s ouster, have been vocally accusing the SCAF of impeding Egypt’s so-called democratic transition. Even the waiter at my hotel that night was complaining to me that Egypt is the “only country in the world that doesn’t protect its people.” The rhetoric against the military has been increasing, but it was not until the night of Oct. 9 that the military itself became a target of attacks by demonstrators. Oct. 9 was also the first time there had been reports of firearms used by demonstrators against the military. Regardless of the identity of the shooters in the crowd, what sect they belonged to and on whose behalf they were working, the riots revealed how the military was being stripped of its image as a neutral arbiter in Egypt’s political crisis.
What most of the media have failed to discern in covering the Egyptian uprising is the centrality of the military in the conflict. With or without Mubarak in the picture, the military in Egypt has long been the true mainstay and vanguard of the regime. When Egyptians took to the streets at the start of the year, they did so with a common purpose: to oust a leader who symbolized the root of their grievances. What many didn’t realize at the time was that the military elite quietly shared the goal of dislodging the Egyptian leader and in fact used the demonstrations to destroy Mubarak’s succession plans. Throughout the demonstrations, the military took great care to avoid becoming the target of the protesters’ wrath, instead presenting itself as the only real vehicle toward political change and the champion of stability in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Where the opposition and military diverged was in the expectation that the removal of Mubarak would lead to fundamental changes in how Egypt is run. In the SCAF’s view, the main purpose of the upcoming elections is to merely give the impression of a transition to democracy. While the military regime would prefer to leave the headaches of day-to-day governance to a civilian government, no member of the SCAF is prepared to take orders from a civilian leader. More important, the military is not prepared to hold the door open for political rivals, particularly Islamists, who are hoping to gradually displace the old guard.
The next several weeks therefore will be crucial to watch in Egypt. The military is caught between needing to give the impression that it is willingly transferring power to a democratically elected civilian government while doing everything it can to keep the opposition sufficiently weak and divided. The military is not alone in this objective; there is still a sizable constituency in the country, particularly among the economic elite, that views the opposition with deep disdain and distrust.
At this point, it is unclear whether the military regime is prepared to see the election cycle all the way through. Parliamentary elections are set to begin Nov. 28, but with the security situation as it is, it would not be a surprise if the military decided that a delay was needed. There has been no talk of this yet, but it has only been two days since the violence at Maspero. At this point, one can expect Egypt’s factions to be making serious preparations for their worst-case scenarios. The SCAF is trying to determine the level of violence that would need to take place in the streets to impose emergency rule and suspend the elections. Some segments within the opposition, feeling entitled to a share of Egypt’s political power and distrustful of the army’s intentions, could meanwhile be contemplating the merits of armed revolt against the military regime if they are denied their political opening.
This is why the Oct. 9 riots mattered a great deal. The image of demonstrators shooting at soldiers against a backdrop of sectarian riots is one that will stick in the minds of many Egyptians. If that scenario is repeated enough times, the military could find the justification it needs to put off Egypt’s democratic experiment, perhaps indefinitely. Such a move would not be free of consequences, but then again, the military was prepared to absorb the consequences when it allowed the initial demonstrations in Tahrir Square to gain momentum. The key to knowing what comes next lies in finding out who actually pulled the trigger against those soldiers in Maspero on Sunday.
"Geopolitical Journey: Riots in Cairo is republished with permission of STRATFOR."