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Egypt's Mohamed Mahmoud Anniversary Protests Were Pretty Surreal

Everyone got along, but they were all chanting about hating each other.

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cairo

The second anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes was a confusing day of demonstration. Hundreds gathered in Cairo Tuesday to pay tribute to protesters killed by riot police during a crackdown on the Egyptian revolution two years ago, but wanting to commemorate those who lost their lives was about as close to an overall common ground as it got. Demonstrators included people who support the army, people who support the Muslim Brotherhood and people who support neither and don’t want to be ruled by either a military junta or Islamists.


Thankfully, the scenes of the 19th of November, 2011 weren't repeated, but small scuffles did break out near the Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square as pro-army groups exchanged verbal – and then physical – blows with their opponents. For the most part, it was a peaceful day of demonstrations dominated by the "third square" movement that opposes both the army and the Brotherhood.

In the build up to the day’s events, various groups released statements outlining their plans for the day. The pro-Brotherhood "Anti-Coup Alliance" made it clear that they had no intention of going anywhere near Mohamed Mahmoud Street or Tahrir Square, "so as not to give a chance to the conspirators to fabricate violent incidents and blame them on the [Anti-Coup Alliance]". They kept their word and their protests were mostly confined to areas away from central downtown Cairo.

Overall, it was the incongruous plans of the pro-army groups that seemed to irk the majority of Egyptians. They called for mass demonstrations in remembrance of the martyrs killed in Mohamed Mahmoud, but also in support of the Interior Ministry, the police and the army. Ironically, it was the police who'd killed the martyrs being remembered, but I'm guessing the pro-army groups just chose to forget that minor detail.

A "coffin" of one of the Mohamed Mahmoud martyrs

After the deaths of around 50 people in the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud crackdown, the Ministry of Interior released a statement condemning a "third party" in a vain attempt to shift the blame. In response to such a flagrant shot at rewriting history, the groups that identify themselves as the "Third Square" – moderate, liberal, leftist Muslims who reject both the Muslim Brotherhood and military rule – called on their supporters to flock to Mohamed Mahmoud to remember those killed, while also opposing the pro-army groups.


Their work started the day before when a new Third Square group called "The Way of the Revolution Front" held a demonstration in Abdeen, not far from Tahrir Square. Speeches were given and video from the 2011 tragedy was shown on a screen. The mothers of those killed during the fighting also joined the group.

The "re-decorated" Mohamed Mahmoud monument

Afterwards, they ventured down Mohamed Mahmoud Street and into Tahrir Square, where a monument "in memory of those that died in the January 2011 and June 2012 revolutions" had just been erected. The monument didn't go down particularly well. Considering it was built by the current government, many believe it taints the martyrs' memory somewhat. Less than 12 hours after it was inaugurated by Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, it was being taken apart and sprayed with graffiti that read: "Down with those who betrayed us: Brotherhood; remnants of the old regime; and the Interior Ministry."

A man who supports General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – the First Deputy Prime Minister, who led the coup against former President Morsi – watching from the periphery turned to me and whispered, "This is a disgrace, for the martyrs and all Egyptians. These dogs are not real Egyptians."

On the anniversary itself, a rare criticism of the incredibly powerful army could be seen and heard throughout downtown Cairo. Until Tuesday, the pro-Brotherhood groups had a monopoly on anti-army chants and the pro-army groups dominated the anti-Brotherhood chants. Now, members of the Third Square were – almost in the same breath – chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood and the army. "Down with military rule!" could be heard alongside calls against former President Mohamed Morsi.


It was noticeable that there wasn't much of a security presence, especially given that the area is often inundated with police and armoured vehicles (APCs). Clearly aware that their presence would likely cause more problems that it would prevent, security forces had evacuated the area.

A take on the old chant of, "Aysh horreya, adala igtameya (bread, freedom, social justice)" was modified to, "Aysh, Horreya, Tutheer ad-Dakhleya(bread, freedom, purge the Interior Ministry)" in a special mention to the feeling that impunity is rife in the security forces. Mohamed Fatthi, a member of the Way of the Revolution Front, explained: "We won’t allow [pro-Sisi groups] to stain the memory. We want justice and the Interior Ministry needs serious reform before that will be possible."

The entrance to Mohamed Mahmoud Street from Tahrir had a banner that read: "No entry – army, Brotherhood, remnants of the old regime." Several coffins lay at the entrance to the street, symbolising those martyred two years ago.

The pink camofuflage graffiti lining the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud

Up on the wall was a large new piece of pink camouflage graffiti – an apparent slight against the armed forces and their supporters who'd intended to occupy the street. In Tahrir itself, there seemed to be a blend of allegiances happily mixing among one another. In fact, it was only clear from the signs they were carrying as to what their affiliations were, with some brandishing portraits of General Sisi and others wearing Third Square T-shirts.


An odd development of the various groups being among one another was the sudden influx of hand-signs depicting allegiances. Occasionally, the famous four-finger "Rabaa" hand sign – a symbol of remembrance to the Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp – was held aloft, countered by the two-finger peace sign now claimed by pro-army Egyptians. Meanwhile, the Way of the Revolution Front and other Third Square groups were using the three-finger hand sign, showing an allegiance to neither the army nor the Brotherhood. The sheer amount of hand signs, all meaning representing opposition to each other, made the otherwise peaceful atmosphere slightly surreal.

However, the weirdest part of the day arrived after sunset. As well as being the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, the 19th of November was also the second leg of Egypt’s World Cup qualifying match against Ghana. They had lost the first leg 5-1, so needed to win by a five-goal margin in order to make it to the World Cup. That wasn't exactly likely – but nevertheless, as soon as the match began on the screens set up around Tahrir, the hundreds of chanting demonstrators suddenly fell quiet, squeezing up against each other to watch the match. Egypt won 2-1, but failed to qualify.

After that, as though the preceding 90 minutes had never happened, the chanting continued and small clashes broke out by the Arab League building on the edge of Tahrir Square. For the first time that day, some tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd, a man was killed after being hit by birdshot and the back-and-forth between protesters and security was once again in motion.


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