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The Battle of Muhammad Mahmud Street: Teargas, Hair Gel, and Tramadol

[A protester throws a tear gas canister initially launched at protesters by security forces. Image from Reuters.] [A protester throws a tear gas canister initially launched at protesters by security forces. Image from Reuters.]

 “The people in Muhammad Mahmoud [street] are decidedly not revolutionaries,” they are “vandals,” insisted a police captain on the phone to Yusri Foda’s prime TV show Akhir Kalam. The officer in the video has a point. Four days into what became known as “the Second Revolution”—though many emphasize that this is the part two of the same January 25 Revolution—the Egyptian state media admits that Tahrir Square is populated with “protesters” who might even have “legitimate demands.” But explaining, and even more so, understanding what has been going on in Muhammad Mahmud and large parts of Abdin remains problematic.

The Egyptian police have used numerous brutal methods to suppress the peaceful protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square starting on Friday 18 November. In the early hours of Saturday morning, security forces cleared the saniyya (the “tray” — the circular grassy area about seventy meters in diameter near the entrances of Talaat Harb and Tahrir Streets) of a small sit-in of individuals who were wounded in the wake of last winter’s eighteen-day uprising. The tactical goal of such a brutal attack on a small number of protestors begs many questions. Supporters of the protestors rushed to their aid, and on the afternoon of Sunday 20 November, the military police once again cleared the Square. Videos of security forces throwing bodies on trash piles shocked the world. But ever since that Sunday, Tahrir Square itself and the Talaat Harb area to the north of it was a perfectly safe, “liberated” zone, with the exception of the occasional teargas canister thrown deep into the crowds, and particularly the vicious attack by a suspected nerve agent on Tuesday 22 November shortly before midnight. In fact, when people talk to each other on the phone to make sure their friends or loved ones are safe, one often hears “don’t worry, I am in the Square” meaning, I am safe. It is Abdin, the streets east of Tahrir Square between Muhammad Mahmoud Street and Bab Al-Luq Square, leading to the ministry of interior, where a battle was waged for approximately five days.

And a battle it was. People went there knowing what they were getting into. They went there to fight. Police threw teargas canisters and used shotguns (occasionally also live ammunition); against them was a line of young men throwing stones, but also Molotov cocktails and small homemade bombs. This battle line started on the first day of the “Second Revolution” as a line protecting the Tahrir Square protesters from the advance of the police forces bent on clearing the area, but then developed into a battle for its own sake. (As I write, on Thursday, 24 November, a wall of concrete blocks demarcated the battle line and imposed a truce between both sides). But for the first five days of the battle, this fighting zone was constantly changing, consisting of advances and retreats closer and further from the Ministry of Interior, often penetrating deep into the Abdin neighborhood. Smells, sounds, and collective body language marked this moving battlefield. Groups of young men on the front line were exposed to unabated tear gas. Motorcycles carried wounded and those exposed to the teargas back into safety. Behind the front line there were crowds of supporters and onlookers, escaping from the rain of teargas and shotgun fire, and moving back and forth closer and further from the Ministry of Interior. But taking over the Ministry was hardly a practical target. Rather, this maneuver in the side streets was the whole point. It was a “battle for the dakhiliyya [the Ministry of Interior],” but it does not mean that any of the young men facing the police necessarily wanted or intended to take over the Ministry’s building. It was rather a symbolic battle—or more precisely, a frighteningly real and bloody fight over a symbolic location; the fight itself was the message.

The firing line belonged to particular people who went there to beat and get beaten. Throughout the first week of the “Second Revolution,” Tahrir Square’s proper and the battlezone nearby each had its own demographics. Each was a different crowd, but they can only be understood as a symbiosis—a specific social alliance—as both constructed and supported each other, and increasingly overlapped. The Square, the “safe” zone, contained a truly socially mixed crowd. People from all walks of life came there, often several times a day in support of those who decided to camp there, to help “hold” the Square and support its cause. One saw a social mixture rarely seen in Egypt (though it was famously present in the eighteen-day uprising): middle-class men and women, some of them activists but most of them not; young and old, in suits, kufiyyas, and jeans, alongside galabiyas and long beards; bareheaded women as well as munaqqabat (women donning the full face covering). On the front line, by contrast (and naturally so given the nature of the battle), the demographic was predominantly (though not exclusively) young, male, and socially marginal.

As in some of the key engagements of the eighteen-day uprising, major credit for holding the frontline goes to Egypt’s football ultras. They know how to maneuver collectively, how to engage the police, and how to and play “hide, seek and hit” with the security forces. Crucially, they have a long-standing “open account” with the security forces; they had suffered at the security forces’ hands, and wanted payback. Ultras often provided the “leadership” (however improvised) as well as the communicational and organizational know-how to survive major and prolonged exposure to teargas and shotgun fire and to make sure fighters changed and rested periodically. The ultras have no clear social profile: they include the lower as well as middle strata of Egypt’s young men, united by age, codes of honor marked as much by loyalty to their team as by enmity to the security forces. What marks the ultras is both the will and the capacity to engage the police on something approaching an equal footing—though the logistical capacity to inflict damage is of course not comparable. But while ultras’ know-how might have helped substantially in articulating and holding the frontline, that frontline was made of many other young men who carried on the fight. Some were young Islamists, who refused to obey the directives of Egypt’s largest Islamist groups not to participate in the demonstrations. But the majority of frontline fighters came from the substantial population of young, socially marginal men from Cairo’s peripheral ‘ashwa’i (informal) neighborhoods. They are sometimes called the wilad sis.

The wilad sis are young men who might be described as working class, though most of them are unemployed, underemployed, unskilled and semi-skilled, doing little occasional jobs that change every day (though on most days, there is no “work”). Their prevailing dress code and hairstyle involves copious quantities of gel (the word “sis” alludes to the attention they often pay to their appearance, considered by other Egyptians as almost effeminate). In the past few years, motorcycle culture became widespread among this crowd. It was their cheap Chinese motorcycles, constantly moving the wounded back into safety, which provided the lifeline of the battle zone. Motorcycle “cavalry” was an important element of the Battle of Muhammad Mahmud Street. Such tactics would not have been possible a few years ago as the flood of Chinese motorcycles is a fairly new phenomenon. Unlike Tahrir Square, marked by an articulate political culture and clear political stances and demands, the front line fighters who defend the safe zone of the Square are the same crowd who “terrorize” downtown Cairo on foot, and recently on motorcycles, during both the two Muslim holidays ‘Id al-Fitr the ‘Id al-Adha — a phenomenon much publicized in recent campaigns against sexual harassment. In the Battle of Muhammad Mahmud the same unstoppable force of sheer young masculinity that temporarily engulfs downtown during holidays was settling its longstanding accounts with the Ministry of Interior.

Increasingly distinctions between the young men on the front line (Islamist youth, ultras, and wilad sis) are blurred. All of them share a history of engagement with the regime and its harshly imposed order, and an articulation of codes of honor. For them, this is a battle that is not articulated as being “for something,” but as a visceral fight to settle accounts with the security forces. For them, it is a battle of karama (literally “dignity”), but not of karama as universal human honor. It is rather a historically and socially constituted honor that has a lot to do with how honor and masculinity are constructed locally. They were not fighting for any high-minded outcome such as democracy; in fact, most possibly they do not think anything “good” will come out of this fight. But the fight gives them back their dignity, even if temporarily. Karama for them means their bodies not being subject to torture and mistreatement at checkpoints and police stations. It means not having the small cash in their pockets extracted by each officer they pass. It meant not getting thrown in detention overnight until they can produce more cash. They do not necessarily believe that any force (any political outcome that might come as result of this fight) will help them to recover their dignity. They fight to beat the Ministry (dakhiliyya), to have beaten the dakhiliyya. They do not have much to do tomorrow, so they will be back to the Muhammad Mahmud battlefield.

As I write, they have been battling the Ministry of Interior forces for a week; as the battle goes on, it is increasingly addictive and contagious. Here, both the ultras’ culture and the Tramadol drug culture of the youth from marginal neighborhoods hold major credit for their endurance. The ultras blurred the line between battle and sport early on; especially at night, the battlefield in Muhammad Mahmud was often lit with the colored fireworks (shamarikh) used during football matches. When a police advance was impending, the frontline warned the crowds of supporters and onlookers at their back and prepared itself for an attack by regular, drum-like melodic banging on metal fences. Cheering and whistling also signaled police attacks and action. The cheers, whistling, lights and smells of fresh rounds of teargas soon to fall on and beyond the frontline, rather than being a deterrent, were an energizing and contagious force.

Also, running has a meaning. The crowds had long learned to not react to collective running, knowing the danger of stampede and cautious of the fact that such running might often be the action of provocateurs to create fear and panic. But close to the frontline, running back and forth was a function of the fight, of the energy (to keep up the adrenaline) and self-protection necessary to endure. Provocateurs on the payroll of the secret service were also responsible for lighting up rubbish bins in the streets of Abdin on fire. Their purpose might again have been to create fear and chaos (and of course to feed the state media discourse portraying the events as acts of vandalism). But the real outcome was often the opposite: small localized fires in the side streets of Abdin helped the fighters. They lit up the streets whose public lights had been off for the whole week. More importantly, they were morale-boosters, adding to the dramatic battlefield mis-en-scene. But while similarities with stadium rituals are key to understanding the endurance of the fighters, what was going on in the streets of Abdin was also decidedly not sport. It was a bloody fight with immense casualties inflicted disproportionately on the “civilian” side. But this fight was intended to be very physical (to hurt) on both sides. In Egypt, power has a long history of inscribing itself on the bodies of its subjects. Torture and humiliation are endemic, and are performed disproportionately on this demographic. In the current fight, the police aimed its guns at the upper body, and specifically eyes.

Not everybody came to the battle line to fight. Many came to have a look, to hang out, to support their friends, and got dragged into the contagious atmosphere. All the rituals were so energizing and adrenaline-making that anybody could become a fighter. Middle class activists (as well as Islamist youths) were also part of the front line, including middle-class activist women. But the rank and file of the front line was from a different world, from a very masculine culture; they might fight hand to hand beside middle-class women activists, but they would never tolerate their women to be there; (and indeed they might harass foreign women when they see them as totally out of place).

Egyptian mainstream middle class culture can hardly relate to most of the frontline fighters. This is what will keep giving the state and state-allied media an upper hand in defining them as thugs (“baltagiyya”) whenever the camera gets uncomfortably close. The focus on middle-class martyrs has a positive function of “translating” the battlezone for the rest of the country, its middle class publics. In Tahrir Square as of Thursday morning, the effort to stress the martyrdom of the not-so-middle class youth was evident on banners across the Square: rigala Bulaq al-Dakrur qadimuna li-shehada (the men of Bulaq al-Dakrur coming for martyrdom). Bulaq al-Dakrur is one of the many informal but socially mixed neighborhoods on the periphery of the formal city of Cairo.

But the frontline and the Square are also part of one whole. The frontline’s raison d’être is (partly, originally) to protect the Square, even if it also developed into a fight for its own sake. Without the on-the-ground crowd of ultras and the wilad sis prepared to stop police violence with their own bodies, and most importantly, to hit back, the largely middle-class opposition could not have held the Square for long. The strength of Tahrir Square, physical, political, and intellectual (tens of thousands of people, substantially of middle class demographics, including the occasional celebrity, making politically articulated demands) made the fight on the frontline possible and somehow “legitimate.” Without the protection of the greater cause of the Square, the brutal force of the army would have crushed the not-so-photogenic fighters a long time ago, with nobody paying any attention. They would have been swept away and forgotten as vandals and thugs.

For most of the week, and until Thursday, the dynamics between the Square and formal politics had reached the point of a standoff. The emerging formal political forces and alliances of the past nine months are null and void in the Square. From the Square it seems clear that the time for compromise has long passed. Only radical solutions are acceptable: withdrawal of the army from politics, a complete restructuring of the police forces, a transitional government or presidential council with a clear time-frame and full powers. From the position of formal politics, such solutions are not (yet) acceptable. One may question whether they ever will be. But the Square is determined to accept nothing less, this time. The comparison with last winter’s eighteen-day uprising is on everybody’s lips. Indeed, people are here because they see themselves as having been naïve in the spring when they cleared the Square, leaving SCAF in charge of the revolution.

It is now a battle of will: who will put conditions on whom: us, or them? Who names the new government or transitional council: SCAF, or the Square? Even if not everyone expresses their position in an articulate way, the general refusal to accept and trust the SCAF on the ground seems overwhelming. Just as the Square sees formal political channels (SCAF and parties alike) as illegitimate, the regime’s tactic is to delegitimize the Square, to create a rift between it and the rest of the country, to pose the “Square” against the “street.” The moment to apply brute force has probably passed, but the army has not necessarily had its last word. Internal developments inside the army might be the one thing that resolves this standoff in one way or another.

But for most of the frontline fighters, the battle is not about politics in the formal sense, but about resistance in the most basic, instinctive sense. The police might mean stability and order for mainstream middle-class society, but not for them. Most of these youth come from neighborhoods that never experience constructive policing. The police for them constitute a repressive regime that extracts rents and performs its crude power on their bodies. They have never seen anything good come of it, and cannot imagine that they ever will. The best that can happen for them is that the police stay away from their lives. But while the momentous social alliance of the Midan allows them, for the time being, to settle their accounts with the police “as men” (face to face, crude force against crude force), this is also a very momentous situation. Much of their determination comes from knowing that once the Muhammad Mahmoud Street fight is over, the police are likely to continue their blood feud back in their neighborhoods, away from the scrutiny of the media, and far from the middle-class activists they protected in the battle for Muhammad Mahmud Street.



From Jadaliyya Editors:

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3 comments for "The Battle of Muhammad Mahmud Street: Teargas, Hair Gel, and Tramadol"

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Excellent editorial defining the "Who's who?" of the past week's battle for Tahrir, w/ only a couple of minor criticisms... 1) painting the male street fighters as purely misongynistic is akin to painting all Arab males as misongynistic, which may be true for the majority of men the world over, but isn't necessarily accurate across the board in any culture or subculture. The author may have more experience w/ ultras than me, but I have met at least one who calls himself a feminist & who has very concrete ideas about politics- which leads to my 2nd criticism- 2) some anarchists would argue that it isn't always necessary to articulate a stance in favor of any particular outcome- the actions themselves are often the guide, and this in itself can be labeled democratic (even, dare I say, "ultra" democratic- forgive the pun). From what I've seen, there are those among the "baltagiyya" who think this way- who are university educated & have a very astute knowledge of political organization & theory, that to them meshes well with their active participation in football clubs. Many Western anarchists share a similar affinity. Though most of what's written here is spot-on & commendable- putting into perspective the value of the street fight & crediting all sides of the equation in last weeks protests- I just felt it necessary to caution against over-generalizing about any particular faction. Peace, from Cairo.

David wrote on November 28, 2011 at 06:10 PM
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v good and useful article, but being one of the people who went to tahrir square for the whole period i feel grateful to the battle of mohamed mahmoud: without them we could have never been in the square for so many days and would have never been able to build up to that huge friday demo. simply when we went home to sleep the heroes of momhamed mahmoud kept the police from taking over a very vulnerable tahrir square. over 40 people died and revived a spirit that even probably had a huge impact on the participation of disappointed parts of the society in the elections...

nadia wrote on November 30, 2011 at 09:22 PM
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Thank you. Your perspective has really helped me begin to understand what was going on in Mohamed Mahmoud. Please do see my article http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sahar-taman/egyptians-revolution_b_1114737.html

Sahar Taman wrote on December 04, 2011 at 09:52 PM

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