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Selmeya and Violence

Ashraf Khalil’s Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation:

Much has been made of the near-obsessive dedication to nonviolence on the part of the Tahrir square protesters. For the most part, that’s true. From the very start, one of the dominant chants from the protesters was salmeya, or peaceful. But let’s pause now to acknowledge and honor the fact that Egypt’s nonviolent revolution wouldn’t have happened without some people who were willing to be extremely violent at times. Over a four-day period, a hard-core cadre of protesters confronted and physically shattered the Egyptian police state—overwhelming the shock troops of the Interior Ministry’s Central Security riot police. It was only after that vanguard had been physically destroyed and demoralized that the real revolution could begin. Most popular uprisings boil down to very simple mathematics at some point. First, the people overwhelm the traditional security forces. At that point it becomes a question of whether the government in charge has the will to order its military to attack civilians, and then whether the military is willing to follow those orders. If both are willing, then you get Tiananmen Square; if not, then you get Tunisia. It was on January 28 that Egyptians forced that dilemma onto Mubarak’s government by violently defeating Egypt’s Interior Ministry, essentially stripping away Mubarak’s armor and forcing him to genuinely deal with his people for the first time in decades. I witnessed scenes of incredible violence on January 28, with protesters using military-style organization and tactics to harass and pressure the police until they collapsed.(p162)

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[Fear] began to grow among the protesters about the safety and security of the Egyptian Museum. The low-slung red-domed building houses a treasure trove of Egypt’s rich archeological history—much of it badly maintained and chaotically archived. There was little hope that a fire truck would appear on the scene, so the demonstrators could only hope that the flames from the NDP building wouldn’t spread across the communal wall shared by the two structures. The demonstrators turned their attention to making sure the museum wasn’t looted during the chaos. People here had vivid memories of the widespread looting that plagued Baghdad after Saddam Hussein was defeated. Some looters had already broken in; Times of London reporter James Hider witnessed as a squad of volunteers entered the building, dragged out several aspiring thieves, and aggressively strip-searched them. A second group of volunteers, some of them carrying riot batons, formed a human chain around the building. One of them passionately told Mohamed El Dahshan, “Cairo is not going to be another Baghdad.(p192)

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By the time Mohamed El Dahshan appeared on the scene, the NDP headquarters was already in flames—but protesters and looters were still streaming in and out of the smoldering building. Several cars parked in the courtyard were burning as well, and some protesters were trying to pry open the trunks while the cars were on fire. “There were families, a guy, wife, and child pushing leather desk chairs into the street. Some guy had found a box of Qurans inside and was handing them out free to people,” El Dahshan told me. “I saw a guy coming out with three cartons of milk. Really, it was anything they could carry away.” Feeling conflicted by what he was witnessing, Abdalla climbed a set a stairs onto the October 6 Overpass—a several-miles-long structure that connects to the bridge of the same name and runs directly behind the NDP building and the Egyptian Museum. With a bird’s-eye view of a city in convulsions, he paused to reflect. “I don’t smoke, but I borrowed a cigarette from a friend. I lit it and opened my apple Fanta and watched the NDP burn for a while,” he said. “People were congratulating each other but I felt a little scared, actually. I love downtown Cairo and it was painful to see scenes of destruction. (p192)