Late last night, clashes erupted between protesters and street vendors in Tahrir during which approximately 80 people were wounded. By the end of these skirmishes, the protesters had forced the vendors out of the square against the backdrop of calls saying, "The people want the cleansing of Tahrir!"
For the protesters, street vendors have been a thorn in their side, causing problems ranging from increased trash in the streets to starting fights and smuggling weapons into the square. Most protesters believe that some vendors have also received payments from the interior ministry to report on the activities in Tahrir and wait to receive orders to stir up trouble. Organizers in Tahrir have felt their presence taints the reputation of the revolution and decided in a meeting yesterday to form a community police force to expel them from the square.
|Community police stand off to the side as a man in Tahrir Square breaks a rock to throw.|
At 6 p.m., a group of nearly sixty lined themselves up and marched around Tahrir, led by protest organizers who stopped to ask vendors to leave. In an effort to remain fair, they told the vendors that they were welcome to return as protesters but their wares must remain outside. Observers expressed discomfort with the military-style display of force. Vendors felt intimidated and shouting matches between them and protesters raised concern. Organizers, however, continued to march their team after warning the vendors of the consequences of staying.
A few hours later, another patrol began with the community police force now dressed in orange vests and bearing large sticks. At one point the organizers lost control of their men when someone yelled, "Fight!" Full scale beatings broke out all around the square with any vendor who resisted. The "officers" also berated and intimidated observers who tried to take picture or film the crackdown. One protester threw a camera onto the floor and stepped on it. The entire scene seemed eerily similar to past incidents in which protesters have suffered abuse at the hands of state security officers.
The clashes finally dissipated, giving rise to the cheers and revolutionary chants heard around the square for the past ten days. But the dirty taste it left in their mouths seemed obvious as debates, rationalizations, and excuses could be heard within a number of groups trying to justify the dubious methods used to empty the square. After decades of mistreatment by state security, violence to maintain order seems to have become hard-wired in the Egyptian psyche. One can only hope that the change in the political atmosphere will help heal some of the psychological damage that contributed to last night’s scene.
Tarek Radwan is an Egyptian human rights activist specializing in international law and conflict resolution. He has worked for Human Rights Watch’s MENA division and the United Nations mission (UNAMID) in Darfur as a Human Rights Officer. He currently provides consulting services on civilian protection and Middle East issues.
Photo Credit: Tarek Radwan