Egypt: The legacy of Mohammed Mahmoud Street

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Egyptian protesters throw stones at Egyptian riot police, unseen, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, 21 Nov 2011
Image caption,
More than 40 people were killed in the clashes in November 2011

A year on from clashes between protesters and security services in central Cairo, the BBC's Shaimaa Khalil reports on the impact they had on the country's ongoing transition to democracy.

The walls lining Mohammed Mahmoud Street look like a mural chronicling the battles it has seen.

The names and faces of those who died in street battles with security forces feature heavily.

"Glory to the martyrs," one piece of graffiti says. "Take to the streets," urges another.

Some of the paintings are of those who lost their eyes.

The eye patch has become a prominent symbol of resistance since the Mohammed Mahmoud clashes erupted last November.

The critical location of Mohammed Mahmoud street - just off Tahrir Square and leading to the interior ministry - made it a constant scene of ongoing battles between protesters and security forces.

But on 19 November 2011, those clashes took on a new level of violence.

For about six days Egypt's riot police, the Central Security Forces (CSF), suppressed protests in Tahrir Square and Mohammed Mahmoud Street.

The protests started after the security forces dispersed a sit-in organised by families of those killed or injured in the uprising in Tahrir Square in January and February 2011.

Image caption,
Mohammed Mahmoud St became a focal point for activists' graffiti

News of what had happened to the families spread quickly and people started heading to the square.

More than 40 people were killed in what was to become one of the most violent clashes since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

'Eye sniper'

Three main things made the November clashes stand out.

First, the ferocity of riot police in response to protesters.

The security forces have said that they used force to protect their headquarters, the interior ministry. But many saw this as them avenging their lost pride after they were forced to withdraw from the streets in January 2011 during the 18-day revolution which toppled Mubarak.

Secondly, the use of tear gas.

This in itself was not new, but the intensity with which it was used was. Protesters reported severe symptoms after inhaling tear gas.

One medical volunteer at a field hospital on the edge of the square said at the time that he saw people suffering problems with their nervous system and having epileptic fits.

Others said people were coughing up blood and collapsing.

Some suggested that the Egyptian security forces had been using stronger kinds of gas.

In the end, there was no solid evidence that anything other than CS gas (the chemical compound used in most tear gas canisters) had been used.

Image caption,
Protesters alleged that the authorities were using a stronger variety of tear gas

But scenes of young men and women being carried away on motorcycles - which became improvised ambulances at that time - became a very prominent image of the Mohammed Mahmoud clashes.

Thirdly, the "eye sniper": the phenomenon of the many protesters who were shot in the eye.

One of those was Ahmed Harara, who has become one of the most famous faces of the revolution.

Ahmed had lost an eye on 28 January and was known around Tahrir Square for wearing an eye patch which carried that date.

On 19 November, Ahmed was shot in his other eye.

A famous YouTube video showing an officer aiming his rifle at a protester as his colleagues cheered him on for "getting the boy's eye" led to calls for his arrest and investigations into what is now known as the eye sniper.

Political milestone

The irony was that all of this was happening as Egypt was preparing for the first democratic parliamentary elections in its history.

But Egypt's political milestone faded in the background of yet another wave of violence.

Instead of taking to the polls, many protesters in Tahrir Square called for the cancellation of the elections and deemed them pointless so long as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) was in power and protesters were being killed.

Others insisted on voting, saying that this was the moment they have been waiting for - that for the first time, their vote counted for something.

In some streets in Cairo, especially the ones closer to Tahrir Square, banners calling for the end of military rule and saying that the "revolution was ongoing" hung side-by-side with election campaign posters.

Image caption,
Egypt's generals handed over power to elected President Mursi in June

The parliament that has come out of these elections was annulled, then reinstated, then annulled again.

It is one of the many confusing political manoeuvres Egyptians have been trying to get to grips with.

The ruling military did hand power to Egypt's first democratically elected President, Mohammed Mursi.

A few months after that, the leadership of the military council was forced into retirement.

Despite all these changes, Egypt remains at a very delicate point in its history.

The dwindling economy, security vacuum and general sense of frustration and mistrust in the country's leadership are all reminders of how challenging life is in Egypt.

And a year on from the Mohammed Mahmoud clashes, Egyptians are also reminded that potential violence lurks in country's volatile streets.