Article by Gianluca Solera
Photos by Paulina Raduchowska
Two years after the revolution, everything began again in Alexandria. January 25 2013, a Friday, a day of prayer, was supposed to be the second anniversary of the revolution. But it ended up being a wave of chaos and violence – what in Arabic we call fawdha. In Alexandria, the battle between protestors lasted for twelve hours non-stop, mainly in front of the Maglis al-Mahalli, the Local Council, which currently hosts the offices of the Governor, whose previous headquarters were burned to the ground on January 28, 2011. They started up again in the late afternoon of the following day, and Saturday night became the scene of an urban guerrilla warfare. Street lamps were turned off, garbage containers burned and the asphalt covered with stones. Friday’s marchers had gathered as usual at the central mosque of al-Qaid Ibrahim, an elegant building designed by the Italian architect Mario Rossi in the 1940s. One group, including more than forty factions, headed towards the Sidi Gaber Station, another marched to al-Mansheya Square, the heart of cosmopolitan Alexandria. The last stopped at the Local Council, after having walked along the Corniche.
Then, the clashes started, with a storm of tear gas canisters fired from the rows of police stationed in front of the Council to protect it. Bricks and stones followed from the demonstrators’ side, as did burned tires and garbage caissons to dilute the smoke and decrease the irritating effects of the tear gas. People on the street said: “We did not start this. They did, with their gas canisters”. The gas inflames your throat and your eyes, and you cannot stand it for more than a few seconds. You have to run away as fast as you can. Some of the young people I met said: “This is stronger than what we are used to”. In fact, many of the at least one hundred injured demonstrators from Friday’s protest experienced a gas shock. Very few had gas masks – most used things like scarves, onions, alpine sky glasses, vinegar or a mix of water and an antacid medication named Maalox to alleviate the pain slapping their faces: different ways of protecting themselves learnt by Egyptians from march to march, and group to group. Inhabitants of the old Koum al-Dikka district were distributing paper handkerchiefs to the protesters, and pointing out ways of escaping the gas gusts.
Koum al-Dikka, a working-class district situated on a hill behind Alexandria’s Latin Neighborhood, is a peculiar area in the city. The Local Council, an ugly building, is located right next to it, in the corner between the Central Station and the Greek-Roman Theatre. Koum al-Dikka is a unique place full of memories, with traditional craft workshops, back-streets and labyrinths, hidden old cafés, decaying buildings and kids everywhere. A person who has never entered the area cannot understand the simple soul of the city, a mixture of sense of community, proximity, modesty and decadence.
I still remember the uniform dark colour of the sky over al-Mansheya on that “Friday of Anger”, in January 2011. The sky over Koum al-Dikka two years later was grey and foggy. It was another sky, a sky of nonsense, of no-exit, of confusion and frustration. If two years earlier the “enemy” had been clear and present (the Mubarak regime), today’s target is vague. Is it the Muslim Brotherhood? The Ministry of Interior? Crazy fragments of the old regime? Or the army, which prevented the completion of the revolution during the transitional phase, before handing power over to the newly elected president? Or is it all of them? And who is defending the revolution now? Is it political Islam? The liberals? Or, maybe neither of them, but instead the Egyptian football’s Ultras?
Even the Koum al-Dikka dwellers are confused. Friday night, they dragged the demonstrators out of neighbourhood because they were tired of chaos. It is difficult to criticise them – sound bombs and tear gas would destroy the nerves of even the most brave souls. My friend Mohammed, who was braver than me, joined the front row of the protest to catch a gas canister and examine it, but returned empty handed with dark violet eyes, coughing like an old smoker. On Sunday evening, January 27, President Morsi announced in a televised speech the imposition of martial law in the cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. He justified this measure to fight those who set fire to or damaged state institutions, and hid behind pacific marchers. But even the policemen were confused about the intimidating measures: in a moment of calm, one of them took off his helmet and joined the demonstrators in front of the Local Council, chanting: “Down with the regime of the Mourshid!” (“the Mourshid” refers to the “Supreme Guide” of the Muslim Brothers).
On Saturday evening, at least four of Alexandria’s police stations witnessed sit-ins by policemen protesting the fracturing of Egyptian society. On Abou Qir Street, officers hung a big banner in front of the police station which read: “The people and the police are one single hand!”. Kareem, one of the young people in the crowd told me: “There is no safety any more. And the police don’t want to become the scapegoat for a bad leadership; they don’t want to shoot at people because of social frustration. Many don’t want to serve a repressive apparatus like they did during the Mubarak era.” Funnily enough, in Cairo, the Minister of Interior, Mohammed Ibrahim, was forbidden by officers from entering the police mosque to pray for an officer killed on Saturday in Port Said, because they were upset about their unsafe working conditions.
In fact, safety is yet again an issue for Egyptians. Mohammed and I saw young men with long knives moving freely during the clashes on January 25; a couple of them even had revolvers. The demonstrators are confused: Who are these armed people? I saw one of them confiscating a long knife from a teenager. On Saturday night, neighbours were building barricades at the end of their residential streets, and watching over the persons walking by with wooden sticks and iron bars – a scene that mirrors my memories of the eighteen days of the 2011 revolution. Then, after the death sentences of people involved in the Port Said stadium massacre were announced, scenes that resembled civil war, with fire and smoke in the streets, were broadcast from Port Said – adding disaster to disaster.
While I was taking something to eat on Safia Zaghloul al-Shahir Street on Friday afternoon, I saw a few young men dressed in black from head to foot, with gas masks around their necks. While they were taking a rest, they had pulled down the masks from their faces. Maybe they were members of the “Black Bloc”, a new brand participating in clashes on Egyptian soil for the first time. It was a surprise to me. I know some things about the “Black Bloc”: they are organised in clusters and their identities are not known to all members, but only to the head of each cluster. They practice sabotage in the name of struggling against oppressive regimes, but their sudden presence in Egypt is a rather worrying sign of deteriorating social cohesion and of escalating tensions – a situation where you have to mask yourself and set fire to things in order to make the authority listen. At the same time, signs of instability make their appearance again: the Egyptian pound
“Egyptians are frustrated because the Muslim Brotherhood are just a «copy & paste» of Mubarak’s regime, and use the police to oppress peaceful demos” – says Rashā, a young local surprised by the intensity of the police’s chemical warfare in central Alexandria. Several are the reasons of such a frustration, many were saying in the street: justice for the crimes of the Mubarak´s regime has yet to be delivered, people have not seen clear signs of an upcoming policy for social justice yet from the new leadership, and many old key-figures of the security apparatus and the media concerns are still playing relevant roles. What is needed more than ever right now is unity and solidarity. All forces should abandon any talk that beautifies violence, because violence is ugly. And violence is not just shooting tear gas or burning tires, it is about social injustice, it is about privileges, it is about a power struggle which leaves the poor poor, and the rich richer. That is the violence which lies underneath the skin of Egyptian society. Should Egypt soon recur to the International Monetary Fund´s aid in exchange for drastic austerity measures, which will affect the weak layers of society, while at the same time public institutions and services continue to be ravaged by corruption and the prices of basic commodities continue to grow, then the Black Bloc´s appearance will be nothing compared to the turmoil which will spread out. On Sunday January 27, neighbors of the poor district of al-Dawīqa in Cairo were demonstrating for the third consecutive week for their housing rights, chanting: “The revolution of the hungered is approaching”.
European governments have to understand that regional stability and coexistence cannot be purchased by demanding the enforcement of the same fiscal and economic policies that have been preached in the last years as the right medicine for European countries in distress. Democratic transition in Egypt as well as in other Arab countries will succeed if it will enforce social justice among their citizens. I do wish that European social movements urgently set in their agendas the establishment of Euro-Mediterranean platforms working for the struggle of corruption, the creation of job opportunities, the preservation of common goods from the temptation of sale and privatization, the empowerment of labour rights, the extension of fair trade networks. European social movements must act where their governments have not, anticipating the potential failure of the Arab Spring, or the exacerbation of its socio-economic contradictions. European social movements must build a coalition with Arab revolutionary groups to prepare the ground for Euro-Mediterranean integration along the lines of civil rights, pluralism and social justice, in the name of a history of exchanges, a shared identity and a common future.
Alexandria is the city which paid the highest blood price in the very first days of the 2011 Egyptian revolution; it is the city where its second anniversary has firstly turned into vehement rage. Alexandria, however, is also the symbol of Mediterranean cosmopolitanism. For all these reasons, what has been recently happening there is a signal to be heard. It is the time for active citizens of the two shores of the Mediterranean to stick together, to enforce substantial reforms and foster democracy and solidarity. Alexandria deserves it.