Time to build, not protest? On revolution anniversary, Egyptians disagree

While many Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square on the revolution's two-year anniversary, the Muslim Brotherhood performed charity work, arguing that was a better way to honor the revolution.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Women shout during a protest in Tahrir Square in Cairo.

For a video of an Egyptian activist describing his own experience of the revolution and the two years since, please scroll to bottom of the story.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the deaths in today's clashes.

Thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square today to protest against Egypt's president on the second anniversary of the uprising that swept his predecessor from power, even as violence flared in some protest across the country, with hundreds wounded and at least four dead in clashes with police. 

Meanwhile, the president's supporters spent the day offering cheap food and much-needed services to Egypt's needy.

Filled with disappointment over the unmet demands of the 2011 uprising, and anger toward President Mohamed Morsi for what they say is his failure to represent all Egyptians, protesters filled the square once again, chanting slogans familiar from the days of demonstrating against former President Hosni Mubarak and his regime. A banner strung on palm trees in the square proclaimed the familiar slogan: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

The anniversary also brought violence, as protesters clashed with police and each other in cities across the country, wounding hundreds of people and killing several in Suez, according to state television in the city. In Tahrir, mostly young men traded barrages of rocks and tear gas over a wall of cement blocks. Ambulances waited nearby to carry away the injured, sirens wailing as they crawled through the flag-waving crowd. As night fell, skirmishes with police around the city became more intense, and several offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party were reportedly attacked.

Many of the changes protesters sought in January 2011 remain unfulfilled – one sign in Tahrir read: “Where is social justice? Where is police reform?” Egyptians are bitterly divided between supporters of the Islamist president, and those who feel he is consolidating power and building a government that excludes his non-Islamist opponents. The protesters sought to capitalize on swelling anger at the president and the Brotherhood since they rushed a vote last month on a controversial constitution draft against an outcry from the opposition.

“This is just the start of our struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood,” says Elhamy Helal, standing next to the smoldering remains of some tires as youth threw rocks at police nearby. “I think it will be a long struggle.”

Mr. Helal, who participated in the revolution and most of the demonstrations since, says the protesters now want Mr. Morsi to step down and a new constitution to be written. The constitution passed in a referendum with 64 percent of the vote, although turnout was only 33 percent of the voting population. A large sign in Tahrir called the document a “constitution of the Ikhwan,” or Muslim Brotherhood.

The document put up for a vote by the Islamist-dominated committee will make Egypt a religious country in the long run, Helal says.

“Morsi is not a president for all of Egypt. He's just a president for the Muslim Brothers and the salafis,” says Helal, repeating a common refrain of protesters. “He has also failed in managing the economy and state institutions.... Why should he stay? He hasn't accomplished any of the goals of the revolution.”

Zucchini softens frustrations

But while those in Tahrir used the anniversary of the uprising to protest, the Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, chose to commemorate the day with a countrywide service project dubbed “Together We Build Egypt.” Local branches of the organizations painted schools, planted trees, and sold food and other goods at cheap prices in needy neighborhoods, a deliberate contrast to the protests in the square. For decades before it came to power, the Muslim Brotherhood built support among Egyptians with similar charity work.

In Ezbet el Nakhl, a simple neighborhood far from the din of Tahrir, several men selling vegetables, pasta, and cooking oil at reduced prices outside a mosque did a brisk business with area residents. Zucchini, which cost six Egyptian pounds (about $0.90) per kilogram at normal vegetable stalls in the neighborhood, were only 2-1/2 pounds at the Brotherhood stand. Tomatoes were one pound per kilogram, instead of 1-1/2 elsewhere.

The Brotherhood and FJP bought the vegetables wholesale, and sold them for nearly the same price. Yousuf Kamal, a Brotherhood member from the neighborhood, says the money to buy the goods came from the pockets of local members.

Abeer, a mother of five wearing a full-face veil, or niqab, carried bulging bags of tomatoes, onions, and zucchini as she stepped away from the table. She says life is getting harder as prices rise, but efforts like this make it more more bearable. “It's a good service for the people,” she says, adding that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organization providing such services in the neighborhood.

Helping people is more useful than protesting, she adds, referencing those in Tahrir. “We don't need to do that,” she says. “Morsi hasn't had a chance yet to show what he can do. We have to give him a chance before we judge his performance.”

Don't protest, build

Many of the Brotherhood's opponents have accused the FJP of vote buying by running such charity drives in the runup to elections. Indeed, new parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held by April. But Abeer scoffed at the notion that her vote could be bought for the few pounds she saved on tomatoes and onions, and pointed out that the Brotherhood has a long history of social work. But the sale did show that the FJP has the people's interests at heart, she says.

Nearby, Brotherhood women were selling new and used clothes at greatly reduced prices. The clothes were piled on tables in a ground-floor room filled with voices of women and children as they shopped for their families. On one table, childrens' clothes were sold for 1 to 2-1/2 pounds per item. New men's shirts, still in the packaging, were sold for seven to ten.

“The Brotherhood are those who feel the pain of the people who are lower, and they help them to bring them up,” says Eman Fouda, one of the Brotherhood members helping to sell the clothes. “The country doesn't need protests. We need to build our country.”

Back in Tahrir Square, there was little talk about upcoming elections. “If they forged the constitutional referendum, they will forge the parliamentary elections,” says Helal, explaining why he would rather protest than help an opposition party prepare for the vote. “What should we wait for? For Morsi to make all the government institutions under his control?”

This video is part of a series about the Egyptian revolution produced by Samar Media.

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