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Egypt

Poverty, disillusionment drive Egypt's protests

For over a week, street fighting has raged between Egyptian police officers and demonstrators. Increasingly willing to turn violent, the young protestors are often poor and feel abandoned and oppressed by the state.

Mohamed is 15. He's wearing safety goggles and a gas mask while he stands at the entrance to a street in Cairo that runs along the Nile. Hundreds of demonstrators are fighting here with the paramilitary police, and Mohamed is among them. Most are young - some even significantly younger than he is. They hurl rocks or Molotov cocktails at the officers clothed in black. The police respond with tear gas grenades, rubber bullets and sometimes even with real ammunition.

For Mohamed, one thing is clear: "It wouldn't work peacefully. The police would just attack us if we didn't defend ourselves - so that's why we use violence. I've been here for a week. In the past, I've been at the fights in front of the presidential palace and was there when the revolution broke out at Tahrir Square."

A protester stands on Kasr Elnile bridge holding the Egyptian flag 
Photo: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Protesters said they are the ones protecting Egypt

The young protester is wearing red pants, caked with dirt and worn out. He's from a poor neighborhood in Cairo, where he lives with his brother. Their parents are both dead. However, he said he spends most of his time at Tahrir Square, the massive public gathering spot in downtown Cairo.

Mohamed said former President Hosni Mubarak and his successor, Mohammed Morsi, have destroyed Egypt.

"I'm from a poor family - we have nothing," said Mohamed. "That's why we come here and fight for our rights. We're people and not animals. I hope that we get an honest country."

Dissatisfied with the state

Many demonstrators can relate to what Mohamed describes. They have little to lose, are poor and enjoy few rights - including little protection against arbitrary arrests. Everyone is aware that the protestors cannot afford lawyers who would defend what civil liberties they have.

As such, frustration with the state is running high. It's no surprise then that Mohamed thinks little of the government, and he claims that state officials live on the backs of Egypt's populace. Despite being young, he reflects before answering questions and can ground them in a wealth of life experience. It would be a mistake to see him as a criminal as opposed to someone resolved to improve his lot in life.

The interview with Mohamed is interrupted by a series of explosions. The tails of tear gas shots are visible, and within just a few seconds, the entrance to the street is hardly visible. Demonstrators run and scream. A young woman wearing a head scarf stumbles into view and passes out. One of the boys grabs her by the arm and runs to the nearest ambulance.

Protesters stand on top of a burnt-out police transport van during the day
Copyright: Matthias Sailer

Confrontations between protesters and police have lasted all week

A fellow protestor is 23-year-old Hossam, and he made it out practically unscathed - just with burning eyes: "We've been hitting the streets for two years now because we want justice and freedom, but the police are still fighting us. Two years ago, a friend of mine was murdered by police officers. Compared with bullets, stones and Molotov cocktails are peaceful.

A lack of answers

Hossam stands out among his poorer peers. His expensive sneakers and new clothes indicate that he's among the middle class - from which a small minority of protestors also hail. Hossam said he has no patience left for political negotiations. Instead he said he is seeking a "revolutionary solution."

He wants the president to resign and face punishment for the murders of the many dead demonstrators, Hossam said. Lofty targets, but when it comes to realistic answers to Egypt's problems, he has less to say.

Mostafa, 24, is an acquaintance of Hossam's and has a clear explanation for the increasing turn to violence among protestors: "No one has given any answers or even taken up the issue of their demands or recommendations."

Who's behind the black bloc?

Recent weeks have seen the emergence of a so-called black bloc among the protestors. As with similar groups in Europe and the United States, the group covered themselves in black clothes and masks. The bloc's members say they are prepared to overthrow the president and the Muslim Brothers, using violence if necessary, but it is unknown who's behind the group.

Egyptian army soldiers secure the Shura council while Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi gives a speech 
Photo: Xinhua/Amru Salahuddien (zw) XINHUA /LANDOV

Police - and military troops - have been out in large numbers in Cairo

Their style of clothing has already achieved much popularity, and many other protestors have adopted it even though they do not necessarily belong to the bloc itself. But when it comes to broader issues raised by the organization, protestors are divided.

Mostafa said he sees nothing problematic with the group: "They're not going to do any damage. They just want to do something good for the Egyptian people. The government isn't living up to people's expectations, and so that's why a few people have taken matters into their own hands and formed the black bloc."

But there are skeptical voices, as well. Some argue the protestors swathed in black are merely a government tool to justify fighting demonstrators off more aggressively. The Muslim Brothers have said the black bloc is responsible for some of the most recent outbreaks of violence.

On Tuesday (29.01.2013), Egyptian public prosecutors declared the organization a terrorist group whose members should be imprisoned. Since many protestors wear black, some fear that declaration in conjunction with the state of emergency decree in Egypt could result in a free pass for arrests.

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