According to reports in the daily newspaper al-Fajr (No. 311, p. 23), two girls wearing the Palestinian keffiyeh tried to get into the honorific celebration passing off as sisters of two martyrs. At that moment a group of people gathered in front of the radio and television building (Maspero area, Cairo), headed for the theatre and denied the two girls’ declaration, which did nothing to stop a violent argument in the hall from breaking out. A number of agitators took advantage of this, triggering the outbreak of the riot. The police arrived, surrounded the area, blocked the surrounding roads and burst into the hall to identify the agitators and arrest them. In the meantime word went round that the mother of one of the martyrs had been arrested. The families of the martyrs, along with the protesters and the activists who had joined them, decided to head for the Ministry of the Interior to get the mother of the martyr released. On their way there clashes took place between the protesters and police forces who attempted to block them before they could reach the Ministry building. The use of force by the police, who threw stones to disperse the protesters, led them to react to this in a similar way. When the stones turned out to be insufficient, the police resorted to tear gas, resulting in 30 protesters being suffocated. Then the agitators present among the police started to hit those who had gathered in the central garden of Tahrir Square. And so the situation exploded.
The newspaper al-Masrȋ al-Youm (No. 2573, p. 7) reported that half an hour following the beginning of the celebration the arrival of three buses was announced on which about 100 people were travelling who, when entering into the hall, said they were relatives of the martyrs. Having doubts about their identity, the management refused them entry. The two sides clashed, the families of the ‘martyrs’ smashed the window of the hall and took possession of a computer and some musical instruments. Nineteen people from both sides were injured and taken to hospital. The security service and police immediately made their way to the Ballon theatre, formed a security cordon and caught eight people in the theatre. There were rumours going round that some of the people who were caught were taken to the Ministry of the Interior which ordered their arrest. The injured were also taken to the Ministry of the Interior where they were refused transport to hospital for treatment. It is not difficult to imagine the effects that these rumours had on the angry crowd.
At this point the reader cannot but be astonished by the contrast between the banality of the spark triggering the riot and the seriousness of the consequences, making an analysis of all this necessary in an attempt to try and understand. In the first place it must be admitted that there is a climate of tension and anxiety that pushes to excesses and to believe in rumours which find fertile ground in such a tense atmosphere. According to me, this tension is owing to the delay in drawing all the conclusions of the revolution; time goes by and all the reforms have not yet been passed with the speed needed. The tension is due above all to the growing annoyance of the families of the martyrs for the slowness with which those who savagely killed their young sons and daughters in cold blood are judged. In particular, the situation that came about in the Ballon theatre aroused the bewilderment of the families of the martyrs: ‘Who organised the celebration in their honour at the Ballon theatre? We are the families of the martyrs and the victims. The rights of our children who sacrificed their life for the country have not been respected. The trial of those accused of murder has been postponed by over a month while some of our children are still in hospital’.
Secondly, an irrepressible popular protest is going on which translates into demands for improvement in conditions of daily life, the fight against corruption, unemployment and illiteracy. People are claiming wage increases, more control over price increases and improvements in services. Thirdly there is regret for the heavy losses that Egypt is undergoing at the level of international relations. While the former president paid over 50 visits to France, the ex-regime had completely turned its back on the African countries, particularly those that are home to the source of the Nile, right at the moment when many foresaw that the next war in the Middle East would break out over water.
Furthermore, some see the administrative decision to dissolve the local councils as the main cause of the revolt since it has affected over 55 thousand employees.
The role must not be forgotten of what has been defined as the phenomenon of the professional agitators (baltaghiyya in Egypt, balâthiga in Yemen and shabîha in Syria). These are criminal components armed in different ways, mercenary troops who carry out the orders of those paying and enlisting them, whether they be state apparatus or individuals. On more than one occasion these agitators have transformed a peaceful civil protest into a massacre, as happened during what has been defined the ‘battle of the camel’ in Tahrir Square. On numerous occasions they have instigated the sides, causing bloody fighting which was not necessarily intended to reach such intensity! Sometimes official authorities disguise themselves in the civilian clothes of the agitators and do what they would fear to do officially. It is true that before the revolution of 25 January some parties in Egypt would recruit agitators for the purpose of reaching certain electoral results. The situation was further complicated after the revolution when the criminals escaped from most of the prisons and offered their services to a society which had not yet managed to establish public order with its official police forces.
On the subject of security, it must be said that the officers and military of the Ministry of the Interior feel humiliated after many police stations and officers’ homes were set fire to and they were even hit and killed. Acting in this way the victims wanted to punish the behaviour of the police that does not acknowledge human rights. There were several cases of the police not only torturing prisoners but even killing them, as happened with the boy from Alexandria, Khâlid Sa‘ȋd, whose death is considered the real spark triggering the revolution of 25 January. It can be understood how the police, above all in the period of the former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, became the people’s enemy rather than being at its service. It is true that chaos reigns in the streets of Egypt owing to the absence of police but it is also true that some time is necessary before the police can regain its role, without which it is not possible to imagine any type of collaboration with the citizens. The date on which the revolution broke out did not pass unnoticed, as it was the 25 January, the day of the police force celebrations, chosen on purpose as a present with a particular flavour for those wanting to understand.
In conclusion, there is the absence-presence of extremist Islamic forces which were annoyed by the words of the prime minister who expressed no objection at all to putting the constitutional modifications before the elections (general and presidential), while the forces in question would like to call the elections first since, in this case, their representatives would be the ones to draft the new version of the constitution and apply it. This however is not what the other parties want, most of which are new to the political scene and have not yet had the necessary time to draw up their programmes, form their lists, get known and acquire members. At present in the Egyptian society, a real battle to set down priorities is going on: to draft the new constitution or to begin with the elections. In this battle some Islamists criticise the prime minister, publicly expressing their dissent. Are they not perhaps the ones, operating behind the scenes, who have pushed things to the point of clashes and victims, a violent escalation, moreover after having officially announced that they would not have participated in the protests?
It cannot be said that these elements of reflection alone are sufficient to explain what happened and this remains only an attempt to understand. For the flowers of a real spring to blossom, is it necessary that Tahrir Square flows with tears and blood once again?
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal