A peaceful sit-in descends into chaos and bloodshed
As events have spiraled into violence after the military attacked the cabinet sit-in in the early hours of 16 December, with fourteen dead and over 600 injured so far, the pace at which things have unraveled has left observers reeling.
It’s easy to lose sight of what this sit-in was about in the first place, who was in it and what they were doing during the three weeks of their protest. After the events in Mohamed Mahmoud last month that left 42 dead, there were calls for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to step down immediately and hand power to a national salvation government.
SCAF responded by announcing that it would appoint Kamal El-Ganzouri to replace Essam Sharaf as Prime Minister. Ganzouri held the post under Hosni Mubarak in the late nineties, and protesters objected to his appointment, some of who made their way to the cabinet to being the sit-in.
The cabinet sit-in did not have too many people in it, a few hundred, and displayed a decidedly artistic bent, with graffiti sprayed on the walls of the buildings, protesters reciting poetry and spoken word pieces threw the night, and ornamental decorations of faux coffins to commemorate the dead of Mohamed Mahmoud.
Besides those protesters often working in the film industry, or as researchers, there were also many protesters from the governorates, who were participating in the sit-in due to dire economic conditions outside Cairo. Others at the cabinet were injured in January during the initial protests that led to Mubarak’s ouster.
After Ganzouri had picked his cabinet, protesters at the sit-in were not appeased by his choices. And so they remained, despite some absurd circumstances such as 14 December when some 50 of them seemed to have fallen foul of food poisoning after free meals were distributed amongst protesters earlier that day.
That night was filled with trepidation on behalf of the protesters, who for the rest of the night were very cautious about what sort of foodstuffs were coming into the sit-in. An air of suspicion was permeated the sit-in, bordering on the paranoia. No one knew whether this was purposely done or just an accident, but most people thought the former.
In the aftermath of this, and as things seemed to quiet down again, the attack on the sit-in happened in the early hours of Friday. At midday on Qasr El-Eini the army charged protesters till they scattered. Stone throwing took place on both sides. Then the soldiers on the ground retreated, and those unmarked assailants on the roofs showed up. They were on the higher roof of the building, as well as on a lower roof next to it and on the parliament street itself.
All manner of things were being thrown from the rooftops. Stones, ceramics, house fixtures and at one point even ladders. The fighting continued throughout the day and well into the night, reminiscent of the fighting in Mohamed Mahmoud a month before. It hasn’t stopped since. The next day, Saturday, military troops stormed the square several times, scattering protesters through the exits. Fighting had moved further down Qasr El-Eini near Sheikh Rihan Street. In the middle of Qasr El-Eini the military built a wall of concrete slabs, similar to the one they erected on Mohamed Mahmoud last month.
A sit-in that began peacefully with a few hundred protesters in front of the cabinet is now mired in violence and a five-day long (and counting) battle with security forces. It’s too soon to tell whether like Maspiro and Mohamed Mahmoud no one will be held accountable for the deaths and violence, but with a military insisting on a different narrative of events and a state media that’s backing it to the hilt, this may sadly go the same way.