from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Tahrir Square: The Smell of Tear Gas in the Morning

June 29, 2011

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Protesters are seen in front of smoke after burning a police booth in front of the Interior Ministry in Cairo on June 29, 2011 (Courtesy Reuters)

The pictures and video coming from Tahrir Square last night and today seem eerily familiar. Egyptian demonstrators have squared off against the police in central Cairo for the past 18 or so hours. This is not totally unexpected. No one I know, Egyptian or other serious observers of post-Mubarak politics, believe that the political situation in Egypt will settle down anytime soon. There is just too much at stake and too many groups with equities in the future of Egypt for it to be any other way. That said, political contestation need not be violent and in fact, since the uprising, political violence has been relatively isolated. If the clashes are not totally unexpected (my friend Mahmoud Salem, known almost universally by his twitter handle “Sandmonkey” warned of potential instability and violence last week when I visited him in Zamalek), why they are happening still requires explanation.

To my mind, there are four reasons why, once again, Tahrir Square is a zone of confrontation:

  1. The proximate cause of the violence was an effort on the part of the police to disrupt peaceful protesters seeking justice for those who were killed during the 18 day uprising in January and February. It seems odd that the police and the Central Security Forces would be so heavy handed in dealing with the families of the shuhada, but it seems clear that the cops were looking for a fight. One eyewitness account indicates that as the police moved in, their commanders screamed over loudspeakers atop their trucks ‘We’ll @#$* you all…” The police and Central Security Forces were battered during the uprising, essentially beaten (badly) on January 28th’s “Day of Rage.” That is not supposed to happen. For anyone who has ever seen police and CSF commanders in action, they are an arrogant, violent bunch. It seems clear that they are seeking revenge for the embarrassment of January.
  2. Revolutionaries, activists, and ordinary Egyptians are deeply frustrated by the slow pace of justice. This is nothing new. The Egyptian judiciary has been gummed up for years. There is something more profound going on here beyond the usual frustration with the slow pace of virtually everything in Egypt. Bottom line: Although the former president, his sons, and their top advisors now languish in jail, Mubarak’s regime remains largely intact. This is why it is a misnomer to refer to the events of late January/early February as a “revolution.” In practice, this means that there are large numbers of people—from petty bureaucrats, police commanders, military officers to government ministers and judges (despite the judiciary’s overall reputation for independent thinking)—who do not support the change that so many Egyptians demanded during the uprising. As a result, they are doing what they can to thwart the goals and promise of Tahrir Square.
  3. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Interior apparently believe in the great silent majority who want nothing more than for things to “get back to normal.” This might be more accurate now than during the uprising, but the evidence so far suggests that average Egyptians were among the demonstrators in Tahrir last night and today. The security forces are taking a big risk when they use force against protesters. During this season of unrest, tear gas, water canon, and rubber bullets have not intimidated people, but rather galvanized them to take to the streets.
  4. Finally, as I tweeted last night, the clashes in Tahrir are a visible manifestation of the competing legitimacies of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the instigators of the January 25 uprising. Needless to say, the officers still believe that the legitimacy of the state lies with armed forces and that military remains central to Egypt’s nationalist pantheon. For the revolutionaries, activists, and average Egyptians in Tahrir Square who view the military warily, legitimacy lies with the uprising that dumped Mubarak, further discredited a regime that the army represents, and articulated a clear set of changes to form the basis of a new, civil, and democratic political system.

The struggle for Egypt continues….

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