“We are not thugs, and we are not criminals,” It is the sentence that every single protester in Mohamed Mahmoud street used as they began to tell me about the protests that began on November 19. That day is significant. It is the first anniversary of the “Mohamed Mahmoud Events,” when families and friends of those killed in the Tahrir uprisings of last year gathered to demand justice, and when the police dispersed their peaceful gathering.
These anniversary “events” began three days before Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration that ordered a slew of measures: the unconstitutional removal of the public prosecutor, the curtailment of the judiciary’s power and of the shura council, and the reinvestigation of the violence against the protestors in last year’s revolt against the Mubarak regime. These measures have been called a “soft coup.”
Egyptians, having tasted the fruits of democratic possibility when they ousted Mubarak on January 25, 2011, were not willing to put up with such a constrained political dispensation. They joined the already ongoing street protests around Tahrir Square, in the two avenues of Mohamed Mahmoud and Qasr Eyni.
“It all started on the 19th,” said a 17-year old protestor. “The parties and different groups came to commemorate the anniversary and left. One of our friends was hit by the police. We responded. It has been going on since then. The security services reacted to these new protests with extraordinary violence, filling up the emergency rooms and beds at Mounira Hospital, Hussein University Hospital, Qasr Al-Aini Hospital and Agouza Police Hospital. Over fifty protestors were grievously hurt in the first few days, and one of them, Gaber Salah (Jica), a member of the April 6 movement and two other parties, is clinically dead. (He died on November 26.)
“Muslim Brotherhood are banned from entering the street,” a yellow banner hangs at the entrance of the wrecked Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Visitors are also received by a pond of sewage where the children and the teenagers clashing with the police gather.
Most of the protesters are under 18, and a large number of them are between 8 and 11, many of them street kids. They gather at the entrance of the street and in groups attack the police stations at the Lycée school on the other side of the street. The police respond with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition The youth run fast to face the police and then retreat as fast, hiding as the police lob their tear gas canisters. Rushing between Mohamed Mahmoud Streets and Qasr El-Aini Street, the children beam.
Who are these young people? The media, even the Left media, call them youth, as if they are an abstract category with no stories of their own, no names, no hopes, and no dreams. They are no longer the mythical Youth of the Revolution, just youth, a sneering term that now seems to mean juvenile and immature rather than hopeful. Al-Jazeera found it easy to say that the “youth” are part of a conspiracy. The fuloul (remnants of the Mubarak regime) sent them to create insecurity; these are not youth, but thugs of the fuloul. “It is easier for them to say we are thugs and criminals, what do you want them to call us, revolutionaries? If they say we are revolutionaries, it means we have rights, but if they label us as thugs it means we are the ones who are guilty and not them,” a 15 years old street child responded to my question about the origin of the label thugs.
No political party has adopted them. The April 6 Youth Movement, formed in 2008 to support the textile workers of Mahalla and who had a lead role in Tahrir 1, said that they do not know these youth. But they do not denounce them. They say that they “understand” why they are fighting the police. The same reaction came from a newly formed youth political party, “Nobody knows who they are.” One member of the newly formed parties said during the march on Friday, “They are the youth of the working class neighborhood around Tahrir.” Abstractions, they children are not of interest to the established channels of political life.
Down the street, I met a young man. He had a Palestinian headscarf around his face and was throwing rocks in the direction of the police. He looked like one of the children of the second Intifada. He didn’t want to talk to me at first. Later he came and said, I’ll talk to you if you buy me lunch. But don’t give my name to anyone, he warned. He posed a bit, saying, before we proceed I just want to reassure you that we do not attack people’s homes or stores — meaning private property; we only attack the state property and the police. Why do you attack the police, I ask? Because I want revenge for the death of my friends who died last year, he says. Both died in Mahmoud Street. All of us from al-haram were sitting together when someone told us, watch out the army is going to attack you. While he was telling us this, he was hit and fell. One of his friends came to rescue him, and he was hit and died. I am here to tell the police that we won’t forget our friends, he told me. They need to watch out, the police; we won’t forget our rights. We still remember. We can still attack.
He is seventeen. He is out of school and can’t find a job. He comes from al-haram, from one of the sha’bi (working-class) parts of this Cairo area. His family lives in a small house, with no municipal services. He has been part of the Mahmoud street attacks since the first day.
I asked him how the other people are in the street. He recited a list of poor areas: manateq el sahabiya. None of them with money to eat, with futures to tend to. Matariyya, al Giza, Boulaq, Sayyida Zeynab, boulaq al Dakrour, Al Amiriya. We have become friends, he says, because we protect each other and cover for each other.
We were interrupted by some more commotion. Some people were running from Tahrir to the High Court. Clashes had broken out there when a group of Muslim Brotherhood attacked the high court and fired at it. The Tahrir people had gathered near the Court to chant against the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s power grab. Judges came outside. The police ringed the Court, trying to disperse the people. We went back to Mahmoud Street.
Pandemonium greets us. Young people are running between the streets, around the Square. When the police hit bad on Mohamed Mahmoud, the kids run to Qasr Eyni street, We stopped a young man and asked him if he’d like to talk. He agreed after we reassured him we won’t use his name. He is thirteen. He is a child of the streets, living in and out of this or that avenue for the past four years. His parents are divorced. He used to live with his grandfather in Dar el Salam, the slum in the outskirts of Maadi, but after he died, he went to the streets. I had 35 Egyptian Pounds ($5) and under the Nile bridge where I slept, I met another street child who has a bit of money so we started a company to sell biscuits from a cart. The police destroyed it, and then they had nothing once more. We them began to clean car windows at traffic lights, till we were kicked by the police…Then we started to sell goods in Cairo’s Metro till this was banned too.
Last January, he thought Tahrir Square would be a nice place to sell things. Cigarettes from a cart was the new mode of business. On January 27, the army destroyed his cart. The next day, he joined a group of other street children in a new activity: attacking police stations to free prisoners. There was something fantastic about this young boy, liberating prisoners one minute and then protecting the museum in another. His bravery came from his desire to inflict revenge on the police and the army who had made it impossible for him to live his life. So much had been taken from him; he had so little to lose. What did the children do to sleep in the streets and on top be harassed and humiliated by the police? And what did the youth before even starting their lives do in order to be killed? And what did the prisoners do, stole small things to eat and be kept in prisons for year? This was the 14 years old response to my question why he is attacking the police.
He joined the recent clashes two days after they had already begun. He was at work in a workshop, saw the events on TV and felt he needed to defend his friends. He left work and engaged the police. We want to tell them that we do not forget, he said.
Another boy strolls by. He is eight. He is a rag-picker, going through the garbage and finding things to resell. Police harassment is the coin of his trade. He comes with his friends from el Amiriyya. I came to harass the police as they harass me everyday in the streets, he says, maybe when this is over they will think before they hit every time they see me looking for something to eat. His friend, the 12 years old had other reasons to join in the attack on the police. I’m attacking them because I want good schools where teachers teach and not sit and ask 3ammi el Sayyed (the school janitor) to bring them tea and sandwiches to the classrooms and to hit us if we talk; I am attacking them because I want them to build factories and farms so kids like us find work easily and live with dignity.
For these kids, the police represent the worst of the State. Their attack on the police is not only revenge. It is also a demand for reforms so that they can live with dignity. This 12 years old is also a street child who is scared that Egypt will be led to a civil war. Last year Egypt was one hand, he says, and now we are divided.
At the end of the night yesterday, the police built barracks at the entrance of Qasr Eyni and Mohamed Mahmoud streets. The kids had their own construction in mind. Before moving to attack the police barricade that protects the road leading to the US Embassy, they wrote on the barracks, “Down With the Regime of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Mayssoun Sukarieh, an anthropologist, lives in Cairo.