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In One Egyptian City, the Arab Spring Spirit Has Not Been Snuffed

Wikimedia Commons/Jerrye & Roy Klotz

On Christmas Day the Egyptian government, which had already outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, went one step further and declared the group a terrorist organization. In Cairo, liberal political parties applauded the move. Many Egyptians are fed up with the constant protests that have rocked the country in the last three years. There was little outcry after security forces killed hundreds of supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in their protest camps last summer. Since then, hundreds of suspected Brotherhood members have been rounded up and imprisoned across Egypt. Prospects for dialogue are dim.

Yet, while the revolutionary spirit founders in much of Egypt, it still persists in Suez, which is, in some ways, where it was born. Suez is the city where the first protester was killed in Egypt in January of 2011. At the time of the 2011 uprisings, some activists referred to Suez as “Egypt’s Sidi Bouzid,” referencing the town in Tunisia where Mohamed Bouazizi sparked off the Arab Spring by lighting himself on fire in protest.

Three years later, every night in the center of downtown Suez a group of a few hundred young men calling themselves the Afareet, or “the Ghosts,” gather to chant against the Ministry of the Interior and military rule. They organize using mobile phones rather than Facebook so that they are less easy for the Ministry of the Interior to track. They are called the Ghosts because they disperse when the police come and reassemble at another location nearby, often running down side streets so that armored personnel carriers cannot follow. Lately though, activists say that plainclothes policemen have taken to chasing the protesters on motorcycles.

While there are scattered protests in other parts of Egypt, in Suez they take place in the heart of the city. And it’s a far more diverse set of protesters: Islamists and non-Islamists often march together. Several factors in Suez explain the difference: a history of protests and labor activism that dates back to well before January 2011; longstanding antagonism between residents and the police that overrides communal divisions; and the close family ties that knit together smaller Egyptian cities.

Suez is located at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal. As a result, it’s the site of many large factories and commercial activity, which has led to a history of labor organizing and activism in the city. During the long rule of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Suez was frequently beset by labor strikes and discontent. Mubarak used to appoint his cronies to run factories there, who often hired people from their home governorates instead of Suez natives, breeding more discontent, local residents said.

“The area is all factories, so of course there are many workers,” said Mohamed Hanafy, the legal and civil representative with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights for the Canal cities. As a result, “security authorities have typically gone to great lengths to intervene in strikes and other collective actions,” wrote Joel Beinin, professor of history at Stanford and expert on labor movements in the Middle East when he visited Suez in 2012. On November 29, 2010, a police general was assassinated. So when revolution came to Egypt in 2011, the people of Suez were ready.

The Suez Canal also led to a particularly harsh police presence that united residents of the city in solidarity. As in Sinai and other border areas, security forces often justify crackdowns in the name of maintaining security around the canal, Hanafy explained. This repression has engendered a lot of resentment against the police.

This is in sharp contrast to other parts of Egypt, where public anger has shifted from the police to the Muslim Brotherhood. Once the most hated institution in Egypt, these days “the police are very aware that they’re no longer number one public enemy, the Brotherhood is,” says Karim Medhat Ennarah, security sector reform researcher with the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights.

In other parts of Egypt, police returned to their posts five or six months after the revolution. In Suez, however, residents say police were not seen again until 2012. Most of Suez’s police stations were burned by protesters at some point in the last three years. Now back in power, the police want revenge, says Ennarah, and they’ve been increasingly violent.

The main street in Suez remains covered with the letters ACAB, the acronym for “All Cops Are Bastards” popularized in Egypt by the Ultras, soccer fans who played a crucial role during the 2011 uprisings. There is other anti-police and anti-army graffiti. The problem is, activists say, the police have grown used to acting with impunity. Fueling this anger is the fact that no police officer was ever punished for the killing of protesters during the uprisings in 2011. “Police crimes are not prosecuted,” says Haitham, a 27-year-old Suez resident who calls himself independent but with Islamic leanings. “There’s no justice. No one is accountable; no one pays for anything.”

The army is hardly more popular than the police. While the military has always maintained a presence in Suez, due to the canal, prior to the 2011 uprisings it left day-to-day security matters to the police. After January 2011, the army took over many policing responsibilities, often including matters as small as directing traffic.“Now the police and the army deal with people in the same way” says Waleed, an independent activist. It may even be worse: Activists say the difference between the army and the police is that the army uses live bullets right away, while the police usually start with tear gas and birdshot.

This is all compounded by the fact that Suez is a close-knit place to begin with. It is the kind of town where you can sit with a Salafist who calls up his liberal friend who arrives at the meeting on the phone with a wanted member of the Muslim Brotherhood who happens to be his uncle. While the narrative in the media and in the capital may be one of an Egypt divided, at least in this corner of the country, old ties still hold.  On December 20, Bassem Mohsin was shot by security forces and taken to the hospital in critical condition. He died two days later. Mohsin was in many ways an everyman of Egypt’s 2011 uprisings. He came from a modest background, protested during the 18 days in Tahrir Square, and lost an eye in clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud street that left over 40 dead. Everyone in Suez mourned Mohsin’s death—even some police. I heard an officer express anger over Mohsin’s death at the hands of his colleagues. His death complicates the narrative that the only people protesting are hardline Brotherhood members

Ghareeb, a 26-year-old server in a coffee shop says, as far as he’s concerned,  “outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood was wrong” and “of course there’s empathy between them,” referring to the people of Suez, and the Brotherhood. But, he adds, “people are afraid to say things.”

Prior to Morsi’s ouster on July 3, even within the security services, there was room for political debate. Haitham, the Islamist-leaning activist who was doing his military service at the time said that people used to talk politics in the barracks, but all of that is over now.

“The Muslim Brotherhood are not terrorists,” says Islam, a liberal with the Dostour party founded by Mohamed el Baradei. “They did a bad job, but they are living with us in society.”

Islam’s family is not atypical in Suez. He is a liberal, and he wears jeans and a snug turquoise sweater during the interview. His mother, he says, supports the Muslim Brotherhood and goes out to demonstrate, or at least she did before they were declared a terrorist organization. Another brother is a student at Al Azhar University where there have been protests ongoing since Morsi’s ouster. His father wants “stability” which is often used as shorthand for support for the army.

In Suez, even supporters of General Abdel Fattah el Sisi and Morsi’s ouster are angry at the level of police violence. Khaled Mohamed Hassan, 39, owns a shop that sells flowers, posters of Sisi, and sometimes cats. He’s right on the main square and when I ask him about the Friday protests, which have become a hotbed of violence, he says, “The security situation isn’t very good, but I won’t say it’s bad.” He supports Sisi but says he is “saddened by Muslims killing Muslims” and says the Ministry of the Interior is behind much of the violence. He also says, “the Muslim Brotherhood are not terrorists. I know them.”

If Egypt’s crackdown continues and the economy fails to improve, a more united and diverse opposition of the kind that exists in Suez many emerge in other parts of the country. “The current relationship between the police and society is not sustainable,” says Ennarah. Though Cairo remains quite polarized, representatives from largely secular youth movements took to the streets once more on the anniversary of the revolution on January 25. They were attacked, beaten and killed, not 20 feet from jubilant crowds cheering a new military leader. Though for the moment much of the country remains divided, once again Suez may offer a window into what’s to come.