All afternoon last Thursday, demonstrators in Egypt were tearing chunks from a concrete wall on Cairo’s Qasr Al-Aini Street, hurling the stones at riot police who attempted to disperse them with tear gas. The wall had been built by police to keep such protests contained to Tahrir Square, but now it was providing the protestors with ammunition. Suddenly, two youths wearing black ski masks, black sweatshirts, and matching black Adidas athletic pants sauntered up to the wall, carrying lit Molotov cocktails. The pair moved with an odd air of casualness as they scaled the barrier, hurled their fiery payload at the police, then rejoined the crowd.
The attack was one of the first appearances in Egypt of the Black Bloc, a protest formation, long used by anarchists in Europe and North America, involving the use of black masks and clothing to conceal protesters’ identities and project an image of ominous unity. No Western media groups have been able to talk to Egypt’s black bloc—but on a visit to Cairo last week, we scored an interview.
This new mutation in the protest vocabulary instantly triggered a spiraling debate in the streets, on the Internet, on talk shows and in the pages of Egypt’s politically diverse newspapers. Depending on who you ask, the black bloc is either a serious response to state repression of protests, a violent menace to public order, or an exercise in adolescent silliness.
With violent demonstrations again roiling the country, the black blocs also provided the government and its allies with a convenient new scapegoat. Muslim Brotherhood officials and state-backed media have already blamed the groups for all manner of mayhem, from exchanging fire with security forces to attacking Brotherhood offices. On Tuesday Egypt’s chief prosecutor ordered the arrest of anyone participating in a black bloc, with a spokesman calling the blocs an “organized, terrorist group.” The state news agency announced the arrest of 18 alleged black bloc members on Thursday. Local media also reported that Salafis were forming a “white bloc” to combat the newcomers. The hardline Islamic Group announced that it was prepared to “kill, crucify or cut off the hands and feet” of black bloc members, if so ordered by the president.
Black blocs were originally used by the anti-nuclear and squatter movements in Germany in the 1980s and gained worldwide notoriety for smashing Starbuck’s windows at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. Activists said that the impetus for using the tactic in Egypt came in response to a shift in the local dynamics of street protests. Hassan, a 20-year-old engineering student, explains that activists were looking for new means of self-defense after the melee outside the Presidential Palace in early December 2012, in which throngs of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had attacked an opposition sit-in. Five people were killed in the ensuing fighting.
“After the palace events, we saw that the Brotherhood were very organized,” he told me, sitting in a dim glazed-window café in downtown Cairo. “We had to organize ourselves. Basically the idea is to defend the revolutionaries.” Activists had seen videos of European black blocs on the Internet, he said, and began to spread the black bloc idea on Facebook in early January. The tagline on one of the largest pages was, “Get ready for hell.”
Egyptian activists and protesters have been well-versed in the tactics of street clashes since well before the 2011 uprising, and demonstrators have been covering their faces for decades, so what will the black bloc do differently to defend protests? Hassan wasn’t exactly clear. His response suggested that the black costumes are at least in part a sort of street theater. “It’s a new face for the defense of the revolutionaries,” he said.
Hassan (not his real name) is one of the administrators of a pre-existing 66,000-strong Facebook page which in January was completely re-made with Black Bloc slogans and imagery of black-masked demonstrators. Hassan is himself a supporter of mild-mannered opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei and talks a lot about anti-fascist movements in Europe.
When asked if he had joined a black bloc over the weekend, he waffled. “Not exactly,” he said, then admitted that he had in fact joined demonstrators the previous Friday in blocking Cairo’s massive 6 October Bridge while wearing a hood and a scarf over his face. Later, while walking through Tahrir Square to join the ongoing battle with police on the Nile Corniche, this time sporting jeans and a purple scarf, he said the black bloc is just “an idea that anyone can adopt.”
The fact that the black-clad demonstrators appeared in multiple cities on the same weekend after, however, indicated that there was a concerted effort at a nationwide rebranding. How much coordination among groups, and who is behind them, however, remains a mystery. One of the bloc’s axioms, borrowed from their European counterparts, is “anti-media” and masked protesters routinely wave off requests for interviews on the street.
The Egyptian black bloc also has a burgeoning online presence, including dozens of Facebook pages, a “Black Bloc” rap song, and video communiqués recorded by masked demonstrators. These social media fragments, however, have added to the confusion about whether the black bloc is simply a tactic or an organized group. In one YouTube clip, a masked youth claiming to represent Black Bloc in Alexandria proclaims that the bloc is a group of individuals, with no connection to opposition leaders like ElBaradei. He then presents a list of the group’s demands: revolutionary trials for members of the old regime, a raise in average wages, reform of the Interior Ministry and other government institutions, job-creation projects, and “punishment” for “crimes” committed by subsequent governments since 2011.
It is also not clear whether the social media pages have anything to do with the black bloc’s presence in the streets. The administrator of one such page called me in response to a message I sent him. “I am Citizen X,” he told me, before claiming that the Black Bloc maintains no Facebook pages and refuses all contact with the media. “There is no information,” he said. Citizen X agreed to a meeting in Tahrir Square, but then failed to appear at the interview.
Some dedicated revolutionaries assailed the black bloc as a meaningless stunt orchestrated by teenagers. Mosa’ab ElShamy, a respected photojournalist who participated in the 2011 revolution, told me, “I think whoever is behind them is very immature. All they've done is given the government more excuses to clampdown on protests.”
In ElShamy’s view, the group’s claim to protecting protesters is hollow, and the group actually invited more aggression from policy. “They haven't been able to protect any protesters. They've harmed protesters even more,” he said. “They’re basically the new boogeyman.”
For more on-the-ground reporting on the Arab Spring, revolution, and Spongebob SquarePants, read Jared Malsin's other dispatches from Egypt: