Perched on a rooftop, his face concealed by a black mask, an Egyptian anarchist lobbed a firebomb at the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in the name of a “second revolution.”
Down at street level, the Brotherhood -- the Islamist organization from which President Mohamed Mursi hailed -- was waiting. Supporters including Abdel Rahman el-Beyaly had gotten wind of the plan in March to target the group’s Cairo office, and headed there to defend it. “After burning offices, they will go one step further,” el-Beyaly said.
That same month, hundreds of miles south along the Nile in Assiut, the Gamaa Islamiya, a once-violent Islamist group, was signing up volunteers for “popular committees” whose job, it said, would be to keep order. The plan sparked fears, especially among the city’s Christians, that the committees may evolve into a front for Islamist vigilantism.
Two years into the polarizing transition from the rule of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, political movements in Egypt have shown a growing willingness to confront opponents with force or take the law into their own hands. With security weakened, the concern is that there will be no effective authority to stop them.
‘Conflict and Chaos’
“The inherent risk is that the state is eroding and the alternatives that are emerging are steeped in conflict and chaos,” said Ashraf el-Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo. “Part of the agenda of some of these groups is to deter other political groups, so the possibility of a confrontation becomes real.”
Areas around Brotherhood offices and the presidential palace have at times turned into battlegrounds. Scenes of civilians pelting each other with rocks or firebombs have become commonplace since the ouster of Mubarak, who would jail protesters and political opponents such as Brotherhood members.
The turmoil has hobbled attempts by Mursi to secure a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan he says is crucial to getting Egypt’s economy back on track. Political bickering and unrest have prompted successive governments to back off from initial IMF accords, on concern the austerity measures required would fuel the unrest.
The economy has been growing at the slowest pace since 1992. It will expand 1.4 percent this fiscal year, according to estimates from analysts at HSBC Holdings Plc. The pound has slid 8.6 percent this year and yields on benchmark dollar bonds maturing in 2020 have jumped more than a percentage point to about 7.3 percent.
Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said restoring security was key to reviving investment and tourism, according to a statement from his office yesterday. He expressed support for police as they face political unrest that’s part of “the nature of the transitional period” after the revolt.
Divisions deepened after Mursi sought to widen his powers in November, provoking accusations he and the Brotherhood were trying to consolidate power rather than address root causes of the uprising such as unemployment. Rival groups began to summon supporters onto the streets more often, and even when they called for peaceful rallies, the gatherings sometimes led to confrontation.
It was when Islamists descended on the palace in December and confronted activists staging a sit-in that the face-off escalated.
At least five people were killed that night. Ola Shahba, 34, says she was in the frontline of anti-Mursi protesters, ready to help treat injured colleagues. She says she was captured by a group of about 30 people led by Brotherhood supporters, and dragged to a kiosk where she was detained, groped and beaten.
“It took 15 minutes to get there, all the way they were beating me, with their hands and shoes, they choked me,” she said. “There were hands inside my pants, and my clothes got torn off. I was bleeding heavily and when someone tried to get me into an ambulance, another guy stopped him, and said I deserved to be beaten.”
Shahba, who said she voted for Mursi in last June’s presidential election, said a police officer stood by without intervening. She said she was released the next day after activists lobbied for her release. The Brotherhood, in a statement the next day, blamed the violence on “crowds of thugs armed with all kinds of firearms, knives and swords” engaged in a “vicious plot to overthrow the legitimate regime.”
After that night of fighting a group of young, battle-hardened protesters hit on the idea of founding an Egyptian Black Bloc, according to the man who says he firebombed the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in March. As he recounted the attack, he identified himself by an alias, Hisham, to avoid detention. Prosecutors have ordered the arrest of 22 of the group’s members.
“Whenever there are clashes, you’ll find us,” he said.
The Black Bloc emerged on the streets of Cairo early this year, modeling its tactics after violent European and American protest movements whose members wear black clothing and masks. The group says it’s protecting the revolution and protesters, though its adoption of violence contrasts with the largely peaceful 2011 uprising.
Hisham was back in action on April 19, when Brotherhood supporters clashed with rival protesters. Barking orders, he signaled to a group of masked, black-clad youths who fished out bottles from their backpacks, lit the wicks and threw the firebombs at a riot police truck before disappearing into crowds.
‘Fill the Void’
“We’re not thugs,” Hisham said. “It’s not violence for the sake of violence. It’s just that we’ve tried every possible peaceful means and it didn’t work.”
Brotherhood supporter el-Beyaly, who helped defend their headquarters, said he saw masked Black Bloc members mingle among other protesters that March day. Minibuses carrying his colleagues were attacked, he said.
Four hundred kilometers (250 miles) away in Assiut, where members of the police force had been on strike, the Gamaa Islamiya said it was acting to fill a vacuum by recruiting for its “popular committees.” The group denies it’s seeking to impose its ideology, as local Christians and Muslim opponents charged. Gamaa says its mobilization encouraged policemen to return to work.
“I was telling the police to come back,” said Tarek Bedeir, a group leader in Assiut. “But if they hadn’t, was I supposed to stand idly by and watch, or try to fill the void until they returned?”
Way of the Jungle
Gamaa fought a bloody insurgency against Mubarak’s government that peaked in the 1990s before it renounced violence. After the revolution, it founded a political party. Still, the group’s history and conservative ideology underlay fears that its self-appointed committees may lead to tensions in Assiut, where young men and women in jeans stroll along the corniche holding hands, alongside conservative Islamists with long beards and robes.
After the 2011 uprising, religious figures from both sides stood together in Assiut to defuse tensions after false rumors spread that Christians had attacked a Muslim sheikh, said Father Banoub, a Christian priest and member of the committee set up for that purpose. It still works to keep such problems from boiling over.
Gamaa’s proposal to help enforce the law may upset that balance. It’s “totally unacceptable,” Banoub said. “Where is the state? Are we going to go back to the ways of the jungle?”
‘Dereliction of Duty’
Egypt’s Coptic Christians, who account for an estimated 10 percent of the population, say they suffered discrimination under Mubarak. They’re now voicing concern about the growing power of Islamists under Mursi, especially after the worst sectarian violence in months left several Christians killed in April.
Pope Tawadros II, the leader of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox church, criticized Mursi at the time and said the response of security forces raised “suspicions of dereliction of duty.”
For many, the violence between political rivals or religious groups is especially distressing when contrasted with memories of the anti-Mubarak movement, when Christians, secularists and Islamists stood together in Tahrir Square.
Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Rahman El-Qazaz said he was hit with birdshot in one eye as he defended the Cairo office. He said he was “ready to sacrifice the other,” yet lamented that “the friends of yesterday could become the enemies of today.”
“I participated in the January 25 revolution and was in the square, where we truly were ‘one hand’,” El-Qazaz said, referring to a favorite metaphor for unity during the uprising.
Activist Shahba said that when she was being abused near Mursi’s palace, she begged her captors to let the police take her into detention instead.
“I’d rather be killed by the police than attacked by people who used to stand shoulder to shoulder with me in Tahrir,” she said. “I was psychologically devastated. It was extremely difficult to believe that we, as civilians, have reached this stage.”