Cairo’s Many Shades of Protests: What They Reveal About How the New Egypt Operates

The response to the Salafi-led Sept. 11 demonstration was as amateurish as the incendiary movie itself. It exposes the inexperience of the Muslim Brotherhood rulers – and how speedy they are (or aren’t) at damage control

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Egyptian protesters gather around a burning vehicle in downtown Cairo, Egypt on Sept. 15, 2012.

Ever since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power in February 2011, Fridays in Cairo have served as a convenient political and social barometer. On any given Friday over the past 18 months, somebody was invariably protesting something somewhere—providing Egypt-watchers an imperfect but useful instrument for gauging the national mood, and the strength and demographics of this week’s batch of demonstrators.

But the latest “Protest Friday” in Cairo (dubbed by the organizers as the “Friday of Defending the Prophet”) served up something fairly unusual by local standards: two completely separate protests—both angry over the same thing but with very different tones and makeups –taking place about five-minutes walk from each other.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

Inside Tahrir Square, a small crowd of perhaps 1,000 demonstrators—overwhelmingly Islamist—marched and chanted for hours. The mood was heavily anti-American: President Barack Obama was decried as a “terrorist,” there were frequent calls to expel U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson and at least one homemade American flag was burned. But there was also no desire among the Tahrir contingent to attack or even approach the nearby U.S. embassy.

About 500 meters away, a very different dynamic was on display; a hardcore contingent of around 300 young men waged a pitched battle with riot police who were blocking access to the embassy. The protesters used hails of rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail. The police constructed a wall of massive concrete blocks to seal off the main entry point to the embassy gates and frequently scattered the resilient demonstrators with volleys of tear gas. This group of protesters often shouted anti-American slogans but generally displayed no discernible ideology—partially soccer hooligans and partially just angry testosterone-fueled youth looking for action. It was often unclear whether the black-clad Central Security riot cops were the obstacle in the path of the protestors or the target themselves.

The visual and tactical split between these parallel protests spoke volumes about the way the last few days have gone–ever since a previously obscure and extremely amateurish film insulting the life and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad touched off the ongoing waves of Muslim rage that continue to spread throughout the region.

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Ultraconservative Salafist Muslims and other Islamist factions essentially started this fight when—bolstered by several inflammatory television sheikhs—they marshaled a large  protest outside the embassy gates on Tuesday evening, coinciding with the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S.. But having sparked the protests, the Islamists seem to have almost immediately lost control.

By Wednesday evening the clashes had begun—often despite the best efforts of some of the Islamist groups on the scene. On Thursday, I witnessed this dynamic in action as a temporary peace between police and protestors dramatically broke down.

A group of young men suddenly resumed throwing rocks at the police—who largely huddled behind a phalanx of plexiglass shields and made no offensive moves at first.  Into this maelstrom stepped an incredibly brave group of bearded men—and one woman wearing the full Saudi-style niqab. Facing down a hail of rocks and yelling for calm, they essentially acted as voluntary human shields for the police. (In a slightly humorous side-drama, the Islamist men repeatedly kept dragging the woman away and yelling at her to stay on the sidelines for her own safety.)

(VIDEO: Egyptians Gather Together (But Not United) in Tahrir Square)

The intervention failed and the tear gas volleys began again. Eventually the Islamist forces, having failed to mediate the situation, disassociated themselves completely and withdrew to Tahrir Square. The clashes continued all through Friday and late into the night, back and forth over the same narrow street that connects the Embassy grounds to Tahrir Square.  On Saturday morning around 8 a.m., a massive multi-pronged police offensive violently cleared the area and arrested at least 200 demonstrators.

Friday also served as a clear signal that the violent aftermath of the film controversy isn’t ready to fade away; in fact it might still be escalating. The scope of Muslim anger increased dramatically, with violent protests erupting in Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan.

All through this crisis, the young government of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has seemingly struggled to keep up—perhaps demonstrating the political inexperience of Morsy and his Muslim Brotherhood.  In the aftermath of the Tuesday night protests—when demonstrators scaled the U.S. embassy walls and replaced the American flag with the black banner of militant Islam—Morsy’s government was conspicuously silent. A government spokesman expressed condolences for the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. But Morsy and his government said nothing to condemn the breach of the Cairo embassy grounds.

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It’s possible that Morsy was wary of taking on the Salafist and Islamist forces and opening himself up to accusations of being weak in his defense of the Prophet Muhammad’s reputation. If so, he badly miscalculated how this would play in Washington. When President Obama said in an interview that he considered Egypt to be not an enemy but also, “not an ally,” it was an immediate wake-up call. Within hours, Morsy was giving televised speeches saying disrespect for any embassy grounds in Egypt was unacceptable and powerful Muslim Brotherhood deputy chief Khairat Al Shater wrote a letter to the New York Times, calling the embassy breach “illegal under international law,” and generally saying all the things Morsy should have said a day earlier.

The Brotherhood—where Morsy was a senior official for years before winning the presidency and symbolically cutting ties with the group—also demonstrated its share of political growing pains this week. Perhaps seeking to gain the political initiative from their most conservative rivals, the Brotherhood called for a massive set of nationwide demonstrations on Friday. The move was widely decried as an irresponsible escalation in the raw and emotional current environment. On Friday, about two hours before those protests were set to begin, the Brotherhood made an abrupt and embarrassing reversal—suddenly cancelling the protests and downgrading things to a small “symbolic” gathering in the interests of public safety.

Ashraf Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.

PHOTOS: Protesters Scale U.S. Embassy Walls, Tear Down American Flag