Fighting Dirty With the Mobs in Cairo
I woke up in Cairo on Wednesday morning to the news that five people had died in clashes outside the Defence Ministry during the night. Part of me felt guilty: As someone who's regularly documented the goings on in Egypt since last year, I should have been there. There has been a sit-in outside the Defence Ministry here in Cairo for a few days now, and each night some clashes have erupted. On Tuesday night one person died. There haven't been enough journalists there to cover it.
But to be honest, I felt relieved as well. When I haven't been in the fighting for a while, I get scared about going in again, particularly at night when you can't see the rocks flying. Anyway, I forced myself to join a march to the site of the clashes. When the march reached the sit-in, there were cheers. Everything seemed calm.
But a hundred metres away, the other side of a wrecked bus station, the fighting was intense. Hundreds of revolutionary protesters were exchanging rocks and Molotovs with irate locals and mobs loyal to the government. The revolutionaries call these mobs "baltageya", which basically translates as thugs.
The sit-in started after a coalition of salafis (conservative Islamists) and secular revolutionaries marched from a moribund Tahrir Square rally to the gates of the Defence Ministry early in the morning of April 29th. When I was there, the secular revolutionaries were doing by far the greater part of the fighting.
There is a debate over whether pro-government baltageya such as these are attacking the revolutionaries because they're paid to, because they're ideologically motivated, or because they're just pissed off locals. Most likely, it's a mixture of all three.
Many of the salafis were angry, primarily because their presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail was disqualified on the grounds that his mother briefly took up US citizenship a few years before she died. For an anti-American firebrand, the revelation must have been kind of galling. But they, like the secular revolutionaries, also object to the military's continued domination of political life and the court-martialling of civilians. Elections are just a few weeks away, but for now the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (or SCAF) runs the show. Many people think they intend to after the elections, too.
A few things about these clashes have been different from the others which I've covered for VICE since November. For one thing, according to a friend who was there during the night, protesters on both sides had proper guns. Not just the makeshift pistols that I've seen on the streets before, but real guns that fire real ammo.
Another big difference is that the revolutionaries were torturing a few of the people they captured in the fight. On April the 30th, journalist Simon Hanna reported hearing the sound of a tazer and screams from a guarded tent. Last night, a friend reported that the same thing was going on. He told them it was fucked up, and they shouldn't use the same methods they were fighting against – the endemic and ongoing use of torture by the police is one of the main problems here.
While I was there, the protesters took one person captive. This is the scrum that formed around him, and you can see one guy trying to beat him with a chair. Others were trying to protect him.
Here he is, a few minutes later. I didn't see what happened to him next.
A third difference is that this time there were kids fighting on both sides. It's normal for the revolutionary side to have kids, but not the others. This makes me think that more locals were drawn into the fighting than normal. In this shot, one kid has run towards another with a barrel held over his head for protection. He's just chucked it away, and is preparing to throw a rock of his own.
Plenty of people got hurt. This guy took a few shotgun pellets to the face. He was driven away on a scooter unconscious. I don't know if he lived. At the time he got shot, there was no one on the other side wearing a uniform. The thugs clearly had guns – and somehow, the same type of ammunition the police use as well.
Eventually, the Central Security Force (the Egyptian equivalent of riot police) managed to separate the two sides. The revolutionary crowd backed away toward the sit-in, and begun to chant against another line of CSF. But the fighting seemed to have stopped.
I had to leave, but I managed to chat to a medical student, Ahmed Mamdoh (19), who had been helping the field hospital at the sit-in since 3AM. He told me he had personally seen 13 dead, mostly shot with live ammunition, and more than one hundred shotgun injuries. It's pretty clear that, one way or another, either the military or police are allowing their weapons to be used by non-uniformed thugs. This is Ahmed's shirt, stained after ten hours of tending to the injured.
On Wednesday night there was another huge march to the sit in. There were rumours that heavy clashes would break out again overnight, as locals took revenge for a resident of the area who had been killed in the crossfire. But incredibly, everything was quiet. The death toll now stands at 20.
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