[Marxism] Cairo Activist Fighting Tear Gas With Tear Gas
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 6 07:43:26 MST 2013
NY Times February 5, 2013
Cairo Activist Fighting Tear Gas With Tear Gas
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — As hundreds fled the advancing armored cars of riot police
officers, Mohamed Mokbel ran forward.
A veteran of two years of violent street protests, he pulled on his gas
mask and charred protective gloves for another long night at his current
vocation: throwing tear-gas canisters back at the riot police.
“Whenever people lose hope, the clashes grow worse,” Mr. Mokbel, 30,
said on a break from the fighting on Friday night outside the
presidential palace. “But the people in power are still acting like
there is no crisis, still firing more gas,” he said, “so I am going back
Two years after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, waves of
increasingly violent street protests have decimated tourism, slashed
foreign investment, increased poverty and dashed hopes of a return to
stability. In the last two weeks, more than 50 people have died in the
clashes. Egypt’s top general raised the specter of a “collapse of the
state” if civilian leaders failed to restore order. And the interior
minister warned that armed militias could take over if his forces gave way.
But behind the mayhem bedeviling the new government are street activists
like Mr. Mokbel, who first burst into politics around the time of the
Arab Spring revolt against Mr. Mubarak and say they are still fighting
for its democratic goals. Alienated from Egypt’s new Islamist leaders or
their rivals in the opposition, street protesters have risen up again
and again to check perceived grabs for power, whether by the interim
military rulers, the elected president or his Islamist allies.
Now, while elite politicians tussle over matters of ideology or
provisions of the Constitution, street protesters like Mr. Mokbel say
they are carrying on the fight that kindled the original revolt, a
battle against Mr. Mubarak’s abusive and unaccountable security
services. Two years later, they note, the security forces are still
largely intact, and reports of torture, extortion and excessive force
The street war between protesters and the police presents a double-edged
challenge to President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim
Brotherhood who had been jailed without trial under Mr. Mubarak.
Brotherhood leaders close to Mr. Morsi say he does not yet fully control
the Interior Ministry. Its officers make no secret of their hostility to
the Islamists, and Brotherhood leaders say that the new president is
struggling to win the ministry’s trust in order to tame it.
But many in the street have turned against Mr. Morsi in part because
they believe that he has sided with the security forces. Activists like
Mr. Mokbel say they fear that like the region’s secular dictators, Mr.
Morsi may use the security police against his opponents as a tool of
“They are trying to build a new regime exactly like the old one, with
all its disadvantages,” said Mr. Mokbel, an artist with a small and
slender frame who, between battles, studies painting in a graduate
program in one of Egypt’s top art schools.
The protesters, Mr. Mokbel argued, are the ones defending the rule of
law, standing up for their right to peaceful expression. With no
personal gain, he said, they risk their lives for their cause, for one
another, and for their many friends who have fallen. “We owe them
something,” he said. “Not just a better economic situation, a government
that deals with the people, that is not authoritarian or repressive.”
Mr. Mokbel may be among the more articulate protesters. In the on-again,
off-again battles with the riot police near Tahrir Square, the
combatants are usually teenagers or even children who appear to live
much of the time in the streets. Many seem animated by the sport of it,
and ill-informed about the politics.
But Mr. Mokbel, part of an older network of activists that is the
backbone of the protests, praised the street children for their energy.
“The street kids are the ones who have suffered the most at the hands of
the police, and their demands are much lower — some dignity, respect
from the police, a little better life economically,” he said. “They are
just releasing their anger.”
Although he acknowledged that some among the demonstrators inevitably
provoke the riot police with stones or gas bombs, he nonetheless argued
that police aggression caused all the fighting. “Police attacking
protesters is what causes the chaos,” he said.
Though a few police officers in other cities have been killed by
gunfire, the protesters in Cairo have never been armed. Unlike the
bullets and batons of the riot police, Mr. Mokbel argued, the
protesters’ rock-throwing was mostly harmless against their opponents’
armor, helmets, and shields.
“Even from the Molotov cocktails, not a single police officer has died,”
Mr. Mokbel said. “We do not want to burn down a place that we will end
up paying to rebuild.”
Mr. Mokbel is the son of a government employee and grew up in a
middle-class family. Like many unmarried Egyptians, he still lives with
his parents here. And before the revolution, he said, he and his family
dismissed politics as hopeless.
These days it keeps him up at night. He sometimes has trouble falling
asleep because he is constantly checking his iPhone for Twitter updates
or text messages from protesters who might need his help in some new
skirmish with the riot police.
At any clash, he said, he knows he will find friends. “There are a lot
of really strong relationships, friendships,” Mr. Mokbel said. “We have
slept in the same places, been through the same things, been in a lot of
crisis situations together.”
Like many on the ground, Mr. Mokbel was briskly dismissive of the elite
political opposition. “It does not represent the opinion of the street,”
he said. Anyone who starts talking to the news media on behalf of the
revolutionaries has left them, he said.
And also like many others, Mr. Mokbel said he did not object to the
Islamist ideology of Mr. Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood. When Mr. Morsi
and his Brotherhood allies won control of Parliament and then the
presidency, Mr. Mokbel expected that, as former victims of the security
forces, they would soon move to reform them.
But now the Islamists’ apparent monopoly on power has turned activists
cynical about Egypt’s young democratic process. Since Mr. Morsi’s decree
temporarily suspending the power of the courts to challenge his
decisions, violence around the country has escalated sharply. “When the
regime smashes the judiciary against the wall, and uses the police as a
tool of repression, who will conduct elections?” Mr. Mokbel asked. “If
we wait for elections, what guarantees do we have?”
Senior Brotherhood officials close to Mr. Morsi say moving too fast to
reform the Interior Ministry might provoke an open revolt by the police
at a time when public security is already fraying. Instead, after recent
clashes with police officers killed dozens of civilians, Mr. Morsi
publicly thanked the security forces for their work, and in certain
cities expanded police powers.
“We want to see at least a beginning of justice,” he said.
And so last Friday Mr. Mokbel once again packed his gas mask and
protective gloves into a shoulder bag and headed into the street for the
First he joined a march, to help protect it from a rumored Islamist
ambush. Then he raced downtown to clashes along the Nile, but they
quickly petered out.
Finally, as he was resting his legs just after sunset in a bohemian
cafe, a handful of provocateurs among the mostly peaceful crowd outside
the palace hurled gas bombs over its walls, setting fire to a gatehouse.
The police responded, as usual, with tear gas and, eventually, birdshot.
“Of course the police have the right to defend the palace,” Mr. Mokbel
said, heading into the fight. “But the tear gas doesn’t just target the
people who threw the gas bombs. It is against the whole crowd.”
“A lot of tear gas,” he said, smiling wanly after about two hours of
racing through the smoke to try to throw back the canisters. “So there
is enough for everyone.”
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