The scene in Tahrir Square was a familiar one Thursday night. Surging crowds of demonstrators faced off with riot police along a heavily guarded street. Tear gas canisters flew through the air, and a sense of defiance filled the square. But for Mahitab Elgilamy—one of Cairo’s seasoned democracy activists who took part in the protest movement against former president Hosni Mubarak, the one against the military council that took his place, and many others besides—the situation didn’t feel right. “All these people are gathered like cattle,” she said.
On Tuesday, an angry crowd massed outside the American embassy in Cairo to protest the anti-Islam film that has spawned outrage across the Middle East. Some then scaled the embassy’s walls, replacing the American flag with an Islamic one. An ongoing demonstration against the film has since taken hold in Tahrir—and it’s one that presents a starkly different picture of Cairo’s streets than the one that came through last year when Egypt was the centerpiece of the Arab Spring.
Many of the liberal activists who helped define the protest movement then, like Elgilamy, are uneasy with what they are seeing of it now—and increasingly taking themselves out of the mix.
“I’m totally away from this,” says one well-connected activist.
“Most of the people clashing with police are children,” says another, Nadine Wahab, adding that though she’s been avoiding Tahrir, “I can’t help but follow online all night.”
“They’re not there anymore,” says Big Pharaoh, a popular blogger based in Cairo. “They are taking a very long hiatus.”
Instead of a hardline dictator, Egypt now has a democratically elected president. And though activists still have myriad issues with the new government, and leftover issues with the old, they lack a powerful cause to rally around.
Many activists, like Elgilamy, insist that their revolution is alive and well. “We’re still a threat,” she says. “We are smaller in number, but we fight for a cause. We have principles and we fight for a cause.
But the religious parties that have come to dominate Egypt’s politics—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, along with the salafists who challenge it from the right—are taking up much of the public debate. And in the case of the controversial film, they are moving to make their voices heard on the street. It was the salafists who led the initial demonstration at the embassy. Now the Muslim Brotherhood—Egypt’s most potent force at turning people out—called for a nationwide protest against the film on Friday that, though officially canceled today, could still result in a massive turnout.
In this environment, the liberal activists that made for some of the Arab Spring’s most powerful voices seem drowned out. “There is no Arab Spring in Egypt,” lamented an editor at one prominent Cairo newspaper Thursday night, as tear gas cannisters clanked through the city’s streets and the demonstrations continued to be the talk of the town. “The liberals didn’t retreat from the streets. They’re just weak.”
But it has become unclear whether anyone really has a handle on what’s happening now in Tahrir. While witnesses described the initial protest Tuesday as peaceful, they said it was eventually overrun by violent types. And Thursday’s crowd was dominated not by the Brotherhood or salafist rank-and-file but by the type of young and aggressive teens who make up the ultras, Cairo’s notorious soccer thugs known for their proficiency in fighting police. Many wore clothes identifying them as supporters of one of the city’s two main soccer teams. “There is no Muslim Brotherhood here!” one middle-aged man shouted at a group of young protesters who were claiming solidarity with the cause. “Where are the Muslim Brothers? Point them out to me.”
“The Islamists were here, and they were protesting peacefully,” said Ahmed Adel, 25, a sales manager standing at the edge of the crowd. “But when the young people came, the older men retreated.”
The young demonstrators who were on hand seemed inspired by a combustible mix of adrenaline and religious fervor—and some gave demands that seemed unlikely to be met when asked what it would take for them to give up their fight.
“We will not leave this place until an official apology comes from the United States and the European Union, and the moviemakers are punished,” said 27-year-old Mohamed Sheshaway.
“I’m defending the prophet,” said Mohamed Ragab, 21, who was swaggering through the crowd after a bout with the tear gas clouds. (“Fuck no—don’t tell him anything,” said a friend standing nearby when a reporter approached.)
Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for al-Nour, the largest salafist party, says it has been trying to calm the situation, but with little success. “To this point it has not been easy,” he says. “Nobody can say that he can control the streets.”
And Gehad al-Haddad, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, painted the group’s call for a Friday demonstration as a bid to control the mounting crisis. “We’re trying to grab this anger and control it,” he said.
In a statement on Friday’s planned demonstration—which was set to begin after Friday prayers, like many of the large demonstrations that defined the Arab Spring—the Muslim Brotherhood called for "peaceful expression of protest against the latest anti-Islam film is both the right and the duty of all Egyptian people, Muslims and Christians alike, to voice their anger for the honor of Prophet Mohammed.”
The Brotherhood then canceled its call to nationwide protest on Friday—saying it would only be present symbolically in Tahrir—but demonstrators had already massed in the square, where there were reports of the burning of an American flag.
Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations points out that the human rights language of the Arab Spring has, in these latest protests, been replaced by“rhetoric of intolerance.” It can be seen in the chants of the protesters—“Oh, Obama, we are all Osama”—and in the slogans spray-painted alone the embassy’s outer walls—“Fuck USA.”
And it’s being reinforced, Husain said, by politicians who are using religion to rally emotions in the street—which could end up undermining their calls to keep the protests peaceful and controlled. “They are hitting on raw religious nerves,” Husain says. “These numbers are there right now because the Brotherhood and the salafists and others are creating a mood music that says this is an acceptable cause.”
On Thursday, at the street with the main clashes, which leads to the cordoned-off embassy, an imam pleaded, via a loudspeaker, with protesters to calm themselves. “We need to save the blood! Blood must not be shed!” he said. As he spoke, protesters launched a volley of rocks at police lines, causing a crowd of cops to come running for cover, some tripping and falling as they did. Drills buzzed nearby as workers installed barbed wire atop the embassy’s walls—“so nobody can go up there again,” one of the workers said.
“These are the dark times of the revolution,” worried Mahmoud Taha, who runs the pharmacy across the street.
Yusuf, a muscular riot officer with a freshly broken nose who declined to give his last name, stood giving orders to a group of wary young police. “These are just the ultras kids. The ultras and a couple of beards,” he said. “Anything. It’s just anything. They just want a confrontation.”