My friend and I were doing Arabic homework in a café in Zamalek – an upper class haven in Cairo - when the news came in. Violent clashes had broken out between Tahrir protesters and supporters of the ruling military council (SCAF). Protesters had marched from Tahrir to the SCAF headquarters to demonstrate peacefully , and they were met with violent resistance from stone-wielding civilians. We watched on TV as rocks and Molotov cocktails began to fly through the air, intermingled with the army’s live ammunition cracking over the heads of the demonstrators.
At the time of writing, reports are coming in that over 100 people have been injured, including the female presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel. I’m very worried the violence will escalate through the night. The last time there were clashes like this, over 1000 people were injured before the violence subsided. Some even are worrying that Tahrir Square itself may be in danger.
So how did we get here? Several developments in the past few weeks have made violence increasingly likely, if not inevitable.
First, the decreasing numbers of protesters present in Tahrir Square have made an attack more probable. When the sit-in began on July 8th, at least one hundred thousand people flooded into Tahrir. With the exception of the Salafists, every single political group and movement participated. But the unity and enthusiasm of July 8th have faded since then.
From the beginning, the Muslim Brotherhood refused to stay for the sit-in, though some of its youth members, nonetheless participated unofficially. More recently, the opposition party al-Wafd withdrew from the sit-in as well, its leader oddly claiming the Tahrir protesters played no role in the revolution. As the sit-in dragged on ever longer, the excitement of the square faded and only a vanguard of revolutionaries remained. Protests of over 100,000 had diminished to a sit-in of 1000, if that.
With such a small showing, it would no longer be hard for the military council to portray the protesters as fringe radicals bent on chaos and clamp down on the protests without angering the general public.
Second, protesters in Tahrir have grown increasingly frustrated and angry. As I wrote before, the festival atmosphere on July 8th belied the day’s foundation of anger towards the regime and, for many, the SCAF. While the sit-in has achieved some of its objectives, it has not realized its most important demands. Nor does the SCAF seem prepared to bend much further anytime soon. Rather, the SCAF has escalated its rhetoric against the protests in recent days, with finger-pointing generals attacking key revolutionary groups. Such provocation raised the political temperature even higher. Running out of time as the fasting month of Ramadan approached, many protesters felt the time had come raise the stakes. In such an environment, even a minor provocation from the SCAF could lead to a quick, unwanted, and avoidable escalation. On both sides, there was plenty of tinder ready to ignite.
Finally, many Egyptians have become increasingly ambivalent to, and even hostile towards, the Tahrir sit-in. Some Egyptians have admittedly been mislead about the Tahrir sit-in, especially as Salafists painted the square as a den of sex and drugs – a description that regime remnants surely were happy to proliferate. But even those who support the revolution and its cause have started to feel greater ambivalence. As I wrote last week, many Egyptians who participated in the revolution now worry about the economy, security, and the fragmentation of society. Meanwhile, overzealous protesters made unnecessary enemies with some of the vendors in Tahrir Square in a misguided and short-lived attempt to remove them from the square. Without the clear support of the people, the Tahrir sit-in grew increasingly isolated and thereby vulnerable.
In the end, the SCAF’s military psychology took over tonight. They looked at the Tahrir protesters and saw a weakened and aggravated adversary. With their numbers diminished, their tempers flaring, and their support ebbing, the time was ripe for an attack. By marching on the SCAF headquarters, the protesters stumbled into a trap. The SCAF only had to rile up the locals with rumors of incoming marauders and watch the mayhem unfold. So they did.
The key question now is whether the violence will spur the silent majority back into action. During the first revolution, small bands of demonstrators suddenly ballooned into million-strong protests largely out of disgust at the violence unleashed by Mubarak’s security forces and thugs. Perhaps the SCAF has just made the same mistake.
But that seems unlikely. The waiters at my Zamalek café watched al-Arabiya intently for a minute as news of the battle trickled in. Then with a shrug one of them changed the channel to watch music videos. Collecting my things, I made my way back to my apartment to turn on the news and follow the clashes on Twitter. Passing my doorman, I asked him about the violence. He replied, “What clashes? There can’t be any clashes. The people and the army are one hand.”
UPDATE: If you want to read more about what happened last night, you should check out the Egyptian blogger Zeinobia's blog.