Before military Commander in Chief Abdel Fattah El-Sisi called Egyptians to come out en masse to back his “war on terror,” Karim Muhammed Hassan, activist and spokesman for the Third Square, said “political activists from several parties began communicating, searching for a way out of the political crisis we find ourselves in now.” Hassan explained that, “The first day we went out was July 26, as a reaction to El-Sisi’s speech telling the people to go out to support his authority.”
The night of July 26, in Giza, a protester from the Third Square movement climbed up on the pedestal of a statue of renowned writer Naguib Mahfouz. With megaphone in hand, he shouted “Down with the Brotherhood, down with military rule!” Three hundred protesters arranged in a semi-circle around the statue echoed the slogans, nearly drowned out by the roar of traffic on the bridge above the square.
Just across the Nile in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, tens of thousands of pro-military demonstrators, heeding El-Sisi’s call to “fight terror,” dominated the attention of foreign media, waving banners with the faces of El-Sisi and former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Parents handed their small children up to smiling soldiers atop tanks for photographs.
In Tahrir on July 26, there was no room for talk of the long history of the military’s repression of popular movements in Egypt, nor of whether it’s appropriate to categorically label all Muslim Brotherhood followers “terrorists,” whatever the organization’s offenses.
“We want the purging of all internal [government] units,” said Ghadir Ahmed, a Third Square member and feminist activist. In rapid Arabic with narrow eyes, she told me, “We want an elected civilian president.” Raising her voice, she declared: “We want legitimacy from the street.”
“First, all members of Third Square must agree that we are against the military council,” said Hassan. Second, former Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Morsi “cannot return to the presidency.” And third — signaling the presence of hangers-on from the days of president Hosni Mubarak who hope to restore their privileges, calledfeloul — Hassan said, “Those who were an essential part of the Mubarak regime and who contributed to the corruption of the country cannot come back to political life after the revolution.”
“We see that the steps being taken by the current government are bringing us back to a pre-2011 state,” said Hassan, warning that the current Egyptian government, backed in large part by the country’s most powerful institution, the military, is doing all it can to contain the revolution’s radical current.
“This term ‘terrorist’ is being used for anyone. Women wearing the hijab are called ‘terrorists,’” Ghadeer Ahmed told me in a café in Mostafa Mahmoud street, where battles between protesters and riot police erupted following the 2011 uprising, and political slogans and the martyrs’ faces decorate the walls. Ahmed is referring to the anti-Islamist rhetoric spouting from television stations, newspapers and official speeches since the ouster of president Morsi on June 30.
“El-Sisi didn’t gather people to fight terror, but to keep him in power,” she said.
Despite it’s small size and meager resources when placed in the shadow of institutions like the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, Third Square’s confrontational calls for the interim government and the military to step down have placed it squarely in the sights of anti-opposition propaganda, according to Hassan. “The streets in Egypt have become so hostile to any march or demonstration, as the first idea is always that those are the pro-Morsi supporters. Any marches now are considered pro-Morsi in the eyes of the media and the people.”
With the bulk, if not the entirety of the still-operating Egyptian media outlets pro-military in tone, Hassan pointed out that media-generated hysteria over any form of protest or mass action has forced Third Square off the streets. “Along with the severe political polarization, the way the local media deals with us — by accusing us of being against the army, or against the interests of Egypt — has made people in the streets unable to distinguish between the different opposition movements and parties.”
“We tried to organize our own march [after August 14],” Hassan said. “But people attacked us, and three of our friends were arrested.”
Reports from other Third Square activists since the bloody breakup of Muslim Brotherhood encampments confirm that in recent weeks the net has widened to capture all opposition groups. In a telephone interview at the end of August, Ahmed Rizq, an engineer and an activist with Third Square, noted that the Third Current, an anti-Brotherhood and anti-military group composed largely of conservative Salafists, faced a crackdown by security forces during a protest in which five members were killed. Rizq said somberly that the Third Current activists “were all considered Ikhwan(Muslim Brotherhood), even though they were chanting against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Rizq pointed out that the repression of opposition groups has forced Third Square to withdraw, and precipitated a debate on methods of protest between its members. He said, “Some of the Third Square activists were convinced that we had to go out [into the streets to protest] no matter what the cost.” Others, like Rizq, don’t see the benefit of facing more brutal crackdowns in the streets. “We need time to rearrange ourselves, to find new tactics,” he told me.
In the gloom of silence falling over Egypt, Third Square activists have had to take a step back and regroup. Unable to protest openly in Egypt’s streets without the threat of violent repression, Third Square is searching for new strategies. “If there is any way for us to go out and change people’s views, we will do it,” he said.
“We have queues of people standing in the street holding banners with [anti-military] slogans,” said Rizq, noting one tactic Third Square activists are now using to avoid being labeled by the authorities as violent to justify a crackdown.
Indeed, with the military-imposed curfew still hanging over the usually lively streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities at night — as well as tanks stationed in most public spaces — other activists have searched for a way to protest and forge solidarity. Masmou3, a nascent online campaign that connects those who reject the rule of the military, the Brotherhood and the interim government, is just one example. It has asked supporters to bang pots and pans from their windows and balconies every night at 9 p.m. to show defiance to the new regime, and to “like” its Facebook page to show solidarity.
As feminist activist Mariam Kirollos explained, movements like Masmou3, which means “Heard” in Arabic, “gives resistance a whole other meaning.” “I just heard pots banging in an underdeveloped part of Cairo,” said Kirollos. “This is not an isolated movement.”
As for the destiny of the Third Square movement and others who oppose a reinstatement of military rule, Kirollos believes there is hope. “This is a dark time for revolutionaries, it’s true,” she said. “But we have been through dark times before and we will get through it again.”
Third Square’s vision of an Egypt free of military and religious rule can’t become reality, however, without the mass of Egyptians behind them. Kirollos thinks that despite the repression of the Brotherhood and revolutionaries alike — and the ongoing propaganda war — the patience of many ordinary Egyptians is wearing thin. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people wake up soon to realize that the military won’t give them what they want, unless they fight for it.”
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Sam Kimball is a freelance journalist covering the Middle East and North Africa. He has worked from Yemen and Egypt, and is currently based in Tunis, Tunisia, where he is conducting master’s research on hip hop in the Tunisian Revolution. Sam speaks Arabic, French, and English.