Everyone in Egypt is talking about them but no one really knows who they are. Calling themselves “Black Bloc,” these new masked opponents of President Mohammed Morsi's regime are set to defend street protesters—by force if necessary.
Clad in black, their faces shrouded by balaclavas, they have staged an ominous appearance on the streets of major Egyptian cities and on social network sites over the past few days.
Inspired by the Western anti-establishment and autonomist movements of the 1980s, the mysterious new "Black Bloc" began appearing at demonstrations making the second anniversary of the January 25 revolution last week.
Proudly proclaiming their willingness to use force, the group is vehemently opposed to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's regime and its members say they want to defend demonstrators from the onslaught of the Islamists as well as the state security forces.
On January 24 - the eve of the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak - the movement announced its presence with an “official video” posted on YouTube.
The nearly four-minute clip, shot at night in Alexandria and set to a pounding hard-rock audio track, shows masked youths storming into town with a mission, they say, to fight "against the fascist regime [the Muslim Brotherhood] and their armed wing."
Wearing masks to make themselves less identifiable to police, Black Bloc members joined the demonstrations last week in a number of Egyptian cities including Cairo, Alexandria and Mansoura, a northern Nile Delta city.
At a January 25 demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, some Black Bloc members were heard telling protesters, "We are here to protect you. We do not want to attack anyone.”
When questioned about their political affiliations, the masked youth maintained that they did not belong to any group or political party. But they refused to provide further details, telling a British-Egyptian journalist, “We don’t talk to media, but we are Black Bloc.”
The appearance of the masked men on the streets - many of them flashing “V” for victory signs - injected a foreboding new element into Egypt’s political scene, which has been an explosive mix ever since the 2011 fall of Mubarak and the deeply contested political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.
‘The reaction of civilians overwhelmed by violence’
For Sarah Othman, an Egyptian activist, the emergence of Black Bloc is directly linked to civilians feeling overwhelmed by the violence to which they have been subjected, especially after the December 2012 attack on peaceful demonstrators at Cairo’s presidential palace. Seven people were killed in the violence, which many believe was unleashed by "thugs" sent by the Muslim Brotherhood to clash with opponents of the regime.
Following the clashes at the presidential palace, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Salafist groups were involved in several violent incidents - including the burning of the headquarters of the opposition al-Wafd party in Cairo.
None of the violent, pro-regime demonstrators have been arrested.
During the second anniversary demonstrations last week, old slogans such as, "Selmia, Selmia" (peaceful, peaceful) chanted during the anti-Mubarak demonstrations were not heard.
With the unprecedented levels of violence, many demonstrators began to doubt the effectiveness of a peaceful opposition. "They do not want to sit idly by," said Othman.
The Egyptian police force has long been accused of systemic violence and abusing human rights, a record that has not changed since the fall of Mubarak.
In a report released earlier this week, Amnesty International documented witness accounts of “the unnecessary use of lethal force by security forces” even when “it was not strictly necessary to protect life, including when protestors did not pose an imminent threat”.
For Nagad el-Borai, a lawyer and political activist, the sudden emergence of Black Bloc is therefore "not bizarre”. In an interview with the private Egyptian station CBC-TV, el-Borai said that the group’s motivation was born out of frustration with the current system, which has become a 'religious dictatorship' much like the old Mubarak regime”.
Unlike al-Borai, Samir Shehata, professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, said he was surprised by the sudden appearance of Black Bloc youth on the streets of Egypt’s main cities.
Shehata believes the masked youth are most the radical elements among the revolutionaries that sparked the 2011 uprising.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Said al-Lawindi, an expert at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, called Black Bloc "a consequence of the lack of political awareness in Egypt, particularly among the youth”.
Al-Lawindi worried that the sort of violence the group propagates could obstruct the possibility of a national dialogue in a deeply divided country.
Staging a presence on Facebook and Twitter
The streets are not the only platform used by Black Bloc. The group has at least two Facebook pages (here and here) that attracted over 35,000 fans in a matter of days. Featuring slogans such as "chaos against injustice," the Facebook pages have regular posts urging people to support them.
On Twitter, the handle @ bbbegypt has more than 20,000 followers and provides live news events from across the country.
Many pictures and videos featuring young men defending protesters and clashing with police officials have also been posted and widely circulated.
Anarchists or Israeli stooges?
Confronted with a new genre of protesters, the Muslim Brotherhood and the pro-Islamist media have been quick to denounce the group as everything from violent anarchists to Israeli stooges.
On Thursday, the official MENA news agency reported that Egyptian authorities detained a Black Bloc member suspected of attempting to carry out “Israeli plans to target petrol companies and vital installations.”
Israel has categorically denied any involvement in any such plot, with Israeli Foreign Minister Yigal Palmor dismissing the report as “utter nonsense”.
Seventeen other suspects accused of belonging to the group were also arrested on Thursday. According to AFP, citing a source close to the security services, around 170 protesters dressed in black have been arrested since Saturday, although it is not certain whether they all belong to Black Bloc.
On Tuesday, Egypt’s Attorney General Talaat Ibrahim ordered "the arrest of anyone suspected of belonging" to Black Bloc, which he described as “an organized group that carries out terrorist actions”.
It is still not clear if the group is formally organised or merely a loose movement influenced by anarchist groups that have used violent protest tactics in Europe and the US.
Discrediting legitimate anti-government protests?
Whatever their level of organisation, many Egyptians fear that the appearance of the new group could increase the spiral of violence in Egypt.
On their Facebook pages, a number of Egyptian revolutionary groups have warned their supporters not to join Black Bloc. Some liberal revolutionary activists believe the new group is a creation of the Muslim Brotherhood designed to sabotage anti-government protests. "Do not start using violence; we must find an end to it,” warned Othman.
Shehata worries that the phenomenon “could be used by the powers that be to discredit anti-government protesters and their demands, which are completely legitimate.”
For popular Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem (aka @ Sandmonkey), the emergence of Black Bloc benefits the regime. “They delegitimise all the peaceful protesters,” writes Salem, before going on to add, “They also end any possibility for a political solution for the crisis, since the Bloc are not represented by anyone in the realm of political parties and movements.”
But Salem is not unduly worried about the new group. “Luckily, we don’t have to worry about Black Bloc’s negative effect for long,” he maintained. “Since anyone can be a Blockhead by virtue of having three friends who will join him in wearing black masks or their mum’s black nylon stockings, and since there are no real rules or structure to the group, offshoots and splinter groups will start forming immediately.”
Date created : 2013-01-31