“The thing I remember the most about Mohamed Mahmoud is the teargas,” said Yousra Ramadan, sales coordinator at Stone Group who had taken part in the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes.
The clashes, which raged on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo for five straight days in November, are still vivid in the minds of those who saw them in action. The street, which directly leads to Tahrir Square, was mired in teargas throughout the five days. The smell would welcome you from afar, getting extremely irritating as you approached the street.
Police fired teargas at unarmed protesters under the pretext that they were preventing them from attacking the Ministry of Interior. The ministry’s headquarters lie on a parallel street to Mohamed Mahmoud, four streets away from the entrance to Tahrir Square.
The most memorable aspect of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes for Amr Nazeer, who helped document the clashes through video footage, was “how organised the protesters were”. Several protesters were on motorcycles the entire time, transporting those who are injured on Mohamed Mahmoud Street to the ambulances parked near the Omar Makram Mosque.
“Though driving at 60 and 70 kilometres per hour, the motorcycles would never hit anybody, since there were corridors allocated for their passage,” Nazeer said. “But when the [protesters’] feelings are so genuine, I guess divine intervention is bound to take place.”
The Mohamed Mahmoud clashes especially stand out among any other clashes Egypt had witnessed over the past three years. The clashes were used as a pressure tool to accelerate the presidential elections, whose scheduled date was moved from June 2013 to April 2012. Also, the clashes were the deadliest protesters had witnessed until then.
The infamous Mohamed Mahmoud
Named after a Minister of Interior and Prime Minister, Mohamed Mahmoud Street became the site of deadly clashes in 2011.
Mohamed Mahmoud Basha was born in the late 1870s in the Upper Egypt governorate of Assiut to Mahmoud Basha, a landowner and politician.
Mohamed Mahmoud completed his education in the United Kingdom and is believed to be the first Egyptian graduate of the University of Oxford.
He climbed the governmental hierarchy in several ministries and eventually became Prime Minister of Egypt in 1928 during the rule of King Fuad I, retaining the position for over ten years. He formed four Cabinets, maintaining the position of Minister of Interior throughout most of his years as Prime Minister. Ironically, he is remembered for his iron clad fist.
During his first year as Prime Minister, police had to disperse a protest by beating demonstrators with sticks in Abdeen Square, which is walking distance from Tahrir Square. There were no critical injuries but a decree was soon passed that banned defaming the government.
Today, it is impossible for anyone to go to the street and miss the value it holds for revolutionaries. The walls of the street, which does not lie very far from the Ministry of Interior’s headquarters, are adorned with graffiti of people who died since the onset of protests in 2011.
The graffiti was taken down twice, once in February 2012 under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and another time in September 2012 under the rule of former president Mohamed Morsi. Set on memorialising the dead, the graffiti was quickly restored both times.
Mohamed Mahmoud died after months of illness in 1941, but decades after his death, the street that is his namesake bears witness to some of the worst street brutality in Egypt.
Calls for ‘caution’ ahead of the second anniversary
Two days ahead of the anniversary, various calls for commemoration of the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes have already been issued and many bodies are urging protesters to be peaceful and cautious.
In what seems to be a prelude to violence, in a statement on Sunday, the Cabinet said: “Some groups are planning to push forward some infiltrators among the protesters to promote rumours and incite strife and violence against the Armed Forces and police.”
The Cabinet called on citizens to be “cautious” while participating in events commemorating the second anniversary of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.
The Ministry of Interior also issued a similar message.
The ministry said in a statement on Sunday that it has taken “measures to secure the participants in the commemoration,” calling “upon all to intensify their attention and vigilance so that those who disturb the peace or deviate from the [commemoration’s] goals do not plant themselves between [protesters].”
On Sunday as well, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights demanded in a statement that all political powers commit to peacefulness and discipline. The human rights organisation also called on police forces to carry out their duty of providing security throughout the day and for justice to be served for those whose hands have been “tainted with blood.”
Director of the organisation Hafez Abu Seada said the anniversary should be a lesson for “everyone to unite.”
Political parties also warned about the possibility of further bloodshed.
Member of Al-Nour Party’s High Board Salah Abdel Maaboud said rallying on the streets may lead to “clashes and bloodshed”, which threatens stability. He added that with the current state of polarisation, the party will not participate in protests.
Al-Dostour Party said on Sunday that it has renewed its commitment to continue to fight for the goals of the revolution without giving the chance to anyone to tamper with or exploit the anniversary for political battles or partisan interests.
Plans for the anniversary:
The second anniversary of the five-day long clashes, which left almost 50 people dead, is on Tuesday. As different political movements gear up to commemorate the clashes, those who witnessed them first-hand remain undecided on whether they should take to the streets this year in memory of all those who had been killed.
Samira Ibrahim is known for being among the women who fell victim to virginity tests conducted by the armed forces; however, she is the only one to file a lawsuit in a civilian court. Ibrahim, who had participated in the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and their 2012 commemoration, said that she will be boycotting the street this year.
“I’ve learnt my lesson,” she said. “We cannot afford further bloodshed … Politicians took advantage of those who were killed during the 2012 anniversary; they exploited their blood and reaped the rewards alone.”
In 2012, when ousted Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was in power, security forces attacked protesters commemorating the clashes. At least two protesters were killed as a result, including Gaber Salah, known throughout the media by his nickname, “Jika”.
Ibrahim said she cannot protest in the same place with Muslim Brotherhood supporters and army supporters. “I just cannot align myself with either,” she said.
Both Ramadan and Nazeer said they are still undecided regarding whether they will join those protesting on Tuesday. Nazeer, who was leaning towards not taking part, said that joining the protests this time will be as irrelevant as when the revolutionaries joined the 30 June protests which led to Morsi’s ouster. “It’s just filling up space.”
Political movements such as the pro-army Tamarod “rebellion” Campaign, the pro-Mohamed Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance (also known as the National Coalition to Support Legitimacy), the Revolutionary Front, which openly opposes both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi campaign, Kammel Gemilak, are all planning demonstrations on Tuesday to commemorate the victims of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.
While all movements are initially protesting to honour the memory of those who died during the clashes, their secondary demands differ broadly.
Protesting in support of the army:
Tamarod founder and spokesman Hassan Shahin said the campaign is calling on people to join the demonstrations in Tahrir Square while holding on to the “roadmap” put forward by Al-Sisi.
He added that despite the campaign’s support for a civilian government, they believe that any “peaceful” movement has the right to call for protests in Tahrir Square, even if it is the Kammel Gemilak Campaign. The latter campaign has been collecting signatures calling on Defence Minister Al-Sisi to run for president. Campaign founder Refaei Nasrallah said the campaign is taking to Tahrir Square on Tuesday to support the Armed Forces.
Kammel Gemilak’s call was described as “vile” by Revolutionary Front founding member Haitham Mohamedein. The front was officially founded in September, aiming to halt the “counterrevolution” by resisting the military authority and the Muslim Brotherhood. Its protests for Tuesday are planned to take place in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, calling for the reformation of the Ministry of Interior.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF, which ruled Egypt from February 2011 until June 2012] killed the Mohamed Mahmoud victims and honoured the officers who participated in killing them,” Mohamedein said. “When groups affiliated with the army now call for protests in Tahrir Square on Mohamed Mahmoud’s anniversary, they are calling for violence and they, alongside the ruling military-installed regime, should be held accountable for it.”
Nasrallah completely ruled out the possibility that the police or the Armed Forces were implicated in the killings which took place around Mohamed Mahmoud Street in 2011.
“None of the victims were killed by police-issued rounds,” Nasrallah claimed. “They were killed by the Muslim Brotherhood … it was in the Muslim Brotherhood’s best interest to topple the military government and taint SCAF’s image.”
Nasrallah claimed that the “Egyptian people” also believe the army did not kill protesters. “How could the people take to the streets on 30 June under the army’s protection if the army was responsible for murdering them earlier?”
Ramadan’s most vivid memory of the five-day clashes is of the day she dragged her family to Tahrir Square early morning because “the square seemed too empty” and they were worried it might get attacked.
“We stayed in Mohamed Mahmoud Street for a while, where clashes were rampant,” Ramadan said. “Then we retreated to Tahrir Square. Shortly afterwards, the police broke into the square; they went deep into Mohamed Mahmoud Street, then attacked Tahrir Square with teargas. The number of protesters alarmingly decreased. But when the police left the square, protesters began returning.”
The eye sniper
The man who came to be known as the eye sniper, Mahmoud Sobhy Al-Shennawy, sparked outrage in November 2011, after a video of him surfaced showing him deliberately targeting the eyes of protesters during the Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes.
In Novmeber 2011, Al-Shennawy turned himself in for questioning and in March 2013, the first Central Security Forces lieutenant was sentenced to three years in prison for the attempted murder of peaceful protesters.
The video documenting Al-Shennawy firing at protesters is widely circulated. It seems to have been shot from within the police line-up, showing dozens of policemen and conscripts throwing rocks from behind through thick clouds of teargas.
During the first minute of the video, Al-Shennawy can be seen stepping forward to the front of the police line and firing several rounds as a CSF conscript is heard saying: “It hit the boy in the eye.” As Al-Shennawy returns from the frontline, facing the camera, conscripts can be heard cheering him on.
Rounds being fired can be heard throughout the entire video.
Many protesters lost their eyes during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes, including Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye on 28 January 2011 and the other during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said that between 19 and 27 November 2011, 60 protesters with eye injuries were taken to Al-Qasr Al-Eini Hospital.
As a result, some people suggested changing the name of the street to “Eyes of Freedom” instead of Mohamed Mahmoud, a suggestion that was never carried out.
Police used tear gas, rubber bullets, buckshots and live bullets, although they did not admit to the use of live ammunition. Minister of Interior at the time, Mansour Al-Essawy, made a number of media appearances throughout the time of the clashes, claiming that police were not firing at demonstrators or any other civilians, much to the anger of protesters.
The interior ministry repeatedly denied using live ammunition or rubber bullets against protesters in a string of statements throughout the week.
Muslim Brotherhood’s calls for protest:
Mostafa Al-Khateeb, media coordinator of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said the Anti-Coup Alliance will be protesting the Armed Forces’ rule on Tuesday. The Anti-Coup Alliance, which includes several parties and movements including the Brotherhood, will nevertheless steer clear of Tahrir Square.
“We want to avoid any collisions or misunderstandings between alliance members and other revolutionary movements who will be present around Tahrir Square,” Al-Khateeb said. “We expect the revolutionaries to stand up against any army supporters who would take to the street that day.”
Al-Khateeb said the alliance is calling for protests on that day to commemorate victims of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes as well as those killed during the forcible dispersal of the pro-Morsi Rabaa Al-Adaweya and Al-Nahda sit-ins: around 650, according to official counts.
“Regardless of our disagreements with other revolutionary movements, at the end of the day those are all victims who died for the revolution,” Al-Khateeb said.
Nazeer disagreed with Al-Khateeb’s words. “Just as Rabaa is theirs, Mohamed Mahmoud is ours,” he said.
The Revolutionary Front’s Mohamedein accused the Muslim Brotherhood of betraying the revolution in 2011 by allying themselves with the military regime. At the time, the Muslim Brotherhood had officially announced that it would not participate in the clashes. Like SCAF, the Brotherhood reiterated the importance of holding the upcoming parliamentary elections, which were due a week after the clashes started.
Al-Khateeb claimed that, nevertheless, several Brotherhood youths unofficially joined the protests and volunteered at the makeshift hospitals.
Mohamedein said that in 2012, the then ruling Muslim Brotherhood continued its crimes against the Egyptians. “This street doesn’t represent the Brotherhood’s struggles; it represents their crimes,” Mohamedein said.
On 22 November 2012, Morsi issued a controversial constitutional declaration which, despite ordering a retrial for those accused of killing the victims who fell during the 18 days of the 2011 revolution, gave the Muslim Brotherhood president sweeping powers.
Al-Khateeb claimed the declaration was Morsi’s way of achieving retribution for the victims of the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. He added that the Brotherhood members could not join the 2012 commemoration of the original clashes since “several revolutionary movements and remnants of [Hosni] Mubarak’s regime completely barred Brotherhood members from entering Tahrir Square.”
Meanwhile, Tamarod’s Shahin expressed his concern regarding the Brotherhood’s calls for protests on the anniversary of Mohamed Mahmoud this year.
“I’m worried that some terrorist elements would ruin our commemoration event and turn it into clashes and attacks on state institutions,” Shahin said, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. “If that is the case, we will immediately withdraw and let the security forces handle it.”
Jika, another fallen teen
After laying him in his final resting place, thousands marched in anger in Tahrir Square, chanting against the Ministry of Interior while mourning the death of a 16 year-old who lost his life too soon, Gaber Salah Gaber, who has come to be known throughout the media as Jika.
Jika died on 25 November 2012 after sustaining brain injuries from being shot in the head by the police. Gaber was shot during clashes that began on 19 November 2012 and continued until Tuesday, the day Jika was fatally shot.
He went to Mohamed Mahmoud on 19 November 2012 to commemorate the first anniversary of the clashes, not knowing that he would soon become a symbol for police brutality during the time of former president Mohamed Morsi. He reached Mohamed Mahmoud after taking part in a march that began in Sayeda Zeinab.
Later that night, Jika met with Omar Ezzat, his friend and neighbour. Ezzat said that when the clashes began, he and the rest of Gaber’s friends gathered one another and left.
Jika had taken part in the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes in 2011 and sustained an injury. “He had a birdshot wound in his back,” Ezzat said. “We were there together a lot,” he added.
The next morning, on 20 Novmeber, Jika returned to the street, where he was shot. Ezzat was not with him at the time but speculated that Jika was there because he knew that there were children on Yousef El-Gindy Street, off Mohamed Mahmoud Street. He feared for their lives, so he was telling them to step back when a policeman shot him, Ezzat said.
Jika was admitted to the intensive care unit of Al-Qasr Al-Eini Hospital. His injuries had left him in a coma. Ezzat says on 25 November, it was decided that the life support machines Jika was on would be turned off.
The man responsible for Jika’s death has not been brought to justice yet.
Among the chants demonstrators repeated after Jika’s funeral and burial was, “in heaven, Jika.”
What remains of the clashes:
Ramadan expressed her frustration with the calls made by supporters of both the army and Muslim Brotherhood to commemorate the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes this year. “I would’ve never been hesitant about joining the anniversary if both supporters weren’t protesting,” Ramadan said. “They’ve abducted the memory of Mohamed Mahmoud. They achieved their goal; they’ve prohibited us from commemorating the clashes.”
Nazeer said: “Being in Mohamed Mahmoud in 2011 put you in a very special condition. You felt completely on your own; both the ruling military and the Muslim Brotherhood leaders sold you out. Yet, it didn’t matter, because you felt you were doing the right thing. But now, everybody just wants to buy your allegiance.”