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Dispatch from Cairo: How Egypt's revolution turned on itself
An escalating conflict is threatening to turn a nasty parliamentary debate into something more akin to a civil war
An Egyptian woman holds a national flag as she listens to speakers in Tahrir Square on Dec. 4.
An Egyptian woman holds a national flag as she listens to speakers in Tahrir Square on Dec. 4. AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
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AIRO, EGYPT — Tensions that have been steadily brewing between secularists and Islamists exploded on Wednesday in Heliopolis, an upscale suburb of Cairo near the presidential palace.

A few dozen secularists were camped out in front of the palace, hoping to put pressure on the Islamist president, when thousands of Islamists tore down their tents and chased them away. 

The secularists returned in force, armed to the teeth with petrol bombs, truncheons, knives, and a few guns. The Islamists were anticipating this, and had a similar array of armaments. They seemed eager for a fight.

While police using tear gas were able to move the violence off major avenues, the intense fighting moved into side streets, where police made no effort of any kind to intervene. The conflict lasted late into the night. So far, at least 6 people have been confirmed dead, and 450 were seriously wounded.

Sadly, this is just the latest battle in an escalating conflict that is threatening to turn a nasty parliamentary debate into something more akin to a civil war.

As it stands now, both sides have made it clear that they would rather enter another round of deadly street battles than engage in any sort of political dialogue. It hasn't always been this way.

As little as a year ago, the leftist youth movement and the Muslim Brotherhood, both of which make up the core of their respective factions, were allied against their common enemies in the police, army, and other remnants of the old Mubarak regime. They stood side by side in Tahrir Square against military rule, and fought and died together as the old guard enacted one brutal crackdown after another.

However, this all changed after the first free elections put the Muslim Brotherhood in firm control. The leftists were disturbed by the Brotherhood's growing ties with more radical Islamists and their disinterest in consensus politics. The widespread belief in the leftist camp is that the Brotherhood used trickery and bribery to steal the election, and is now in the process of setting up a theocratic, authoritarian regime.

The Islamists, for their part, see the secularists as sore losers who are completely out of step with mainstream Egyptian sentiment and increasingly willing to subvert democracy and ally themselves with former regime officials to push their agenda.

The conflict has quickly escalated, both in parliament and on the streets, leaving young people on both sides dead — and badly needed political progress stalled. 

I was in Heliopolis during the violence, and was able to spend time running around with both Islamist and secularist fighters.

Leftists advance behind a shield wall in Cairo on Dec. 5.
Photo courtesy of Jacob Lippincott

What disturbed me most was the intense loathing these former allies clearly have for one another. This was not a case of angry young men at the fringes of each movement awkwardly lashing out at one another. Instead, it was a well-organized, concerted effort on the part of both movements to dominate the other side using brutal violence.

Behind the Islamist lines, old men in blazers and button-down shirts, who looked like they would have been more at home smoking shisha in a cafe then fighting street battles, vigorously broke paving stones into smaller, more throwable pieces to be used by their younger comrades at the front lines.

In secularist territory, pretty young women in stylish hijabs collected stones and made molotov cocktails for their men while hurling obscene insults at the Islamists.

Young men and boys scaled the balconies of other people's apartments to throw petrol bombs directly onto the heads of kids their own age, all the while screaming out the names of friends slain in previous battles, as if causing more young deaths was the best way to honor them.

Both sides brought guns and bombs to the showdown, and both sides seemed equally interested in killing and dying. However, it was an incident behind the Islamist lines that disturbed me most.

Around 9 p.m. on Wednesday night, I saw Islamists take a small intersection that leftists had previously occupied. Some of the younger leftist fighters were not able to get away and were seized by their enemies, who beat and dragged them toward the center of Islamist territory. The boys were barely conscious and bleeding from head wounds. They were soon surrounded by men twice and three times their age, who began beating them with sticks, stones, and their bare hands.

To their credit, a small number of Islamists began trying to form a human shield around the boys, shouting "Hallas!" (enough!) I couldn't help myself and ran to try and protect a boy of about 14. However, I didn't do any good, and we were all pushed aside by a mob of wild-eyed middle-aged men, too afraid to actually stand on the front lines, but still extremely eager to take part in the bloodletting.

As I watched the boys being dragged off and beaten, I had two immediate thoughts. First, I badly needed to get back to the safety of my apartment. And second, Egypt is in serious trouble.

After Wednesday night's violence, both sides have more martyrs to be avenged, martyrs who died not at the hands of the police or military, but who were killed by fellow civilian activists.

The struggle between the state and revolutionaries has now been replaced by a bitter partisan battle. The revolutionary movement is tearing itself apart. It's hard to not be worried about what the future will bring, and there is a creeping realization here in Egypt that the worst very well could be yet to come.

Jake Lippincott earned a degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Hampshire College. He worked in Tunis during the popular uprising there, and is now based in Cairo.

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