Anarchists in the West get pretty touchy about the usage of the phrase “black bloc.” While the mainstream media has co-opted the term to christen a new movement of furious, state-destroying bank smashers, the anarchists gripe that all it really refers to is the tactic of wearing all black to help preserve your anonymity at a protest or riot.
In Egypt, however, they seem less concerned with the terminology. Modeling themselves on the anti-establishment ideals of their Western counterparts, the Egyptian Black Bloc share the same tactics and uniform, but have adopted the name with its capital letters intact: Black Bloc as anti-Islamist movement, rather than lowercase anti-CCTV strategy.
Young Egyptians claiming affiliation with the group have been turning up to protests in the hundreds to skirmish with progovernment forces. They have no qualms about using violence and have claimed responsibility for the recent firebomb attack on the Muslim Brotherhood’s HQ and the temporary closure of Alexandria’s tramway.
Understandably, this has terrified the Muslim Brotherhood. President Morsi has vowed to crack down on the Black Bloc. Attorney General Talaat Ibrahim has cited them as a terrorist organization, ordering the police and army to arrest anyone suspected of being a member.
Islamist groups such as Jama’a al-Islamiya haven’t taken their emergence too well either, releasing bafflingly vague statements like “the Black Bloc must die.” A countermovement of Islamists calling themselves the White Bloc has also been initiated, but despite all this, the group is growing quickly in numbers, its ranks swollen with plenty of young people who talk about their own deaths in collateral terms.
I managed to get an interview with one of the guys running Egypt’s Black Bloc. He wasn’t exactly chatty, but I guess he’s got more important business to attend to.
VICE: What does the Egyptian Black Bloc represent, ideologically?
Anonymous: The Egyptian Black Bloc holds several different views and doesn’t adhere to one specific ideology. There’s obviously a resemblance in appearance with the European black blocs, though, and we share some of their basic ideas.
Do you guys have any kind of relationship with Anonymous?
There isn’t one, no.
Does the group have any desire for future involvement in Egyptian politics?
We are indeed already involved in Egyptian political life because we are the youth of the revolution.
How did the group form?
It was formed after one of the attacks that took place against people holding a sit-in at the El-Ettihadia Palace, in which activists were targeted.
How has the general public reacted to the group?
In the beginning, the public was afraid of us. But after we protected and defended them our intentions became clearer and people who liked us started appearing. It’s gotten to the point where people have started defending us.
Who Firebombed London’s Oldest Anarchist Bookshop?
Staff at Freedom Press, London’s oldest anarchist publisher and bookshop, woke last Friday to the news that someone had tried to burn their shop down in the early hours of the morning.
Founded in 1886, Freedom has been at the heart of radical East London for over a century, featuring on walking tours and seemingly, from my time spent in the shop, serving as the first stop-off point for every European crusty looking for a squat to stay in or a protest to rage at.
The shop sits just off Whitechapel High Street, down Angel Alley – wedged between an art gallery and a KFC. If you need to pick up something by Bakunin, Chomsky or the utterly bonkers John Zerzan then this is where you go, past the linoprint heads of Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin and close the door after you because it’s always cold in there.
At around 5AM Friday morning an arsonist entered Angel Alley, smashed a window, poured accelerant into the shop and sent the books, pamphlets and irreplaceable archives of Freedom newspaper up in flames.
That night I went inside the building with one of the shop’s most dedicated activists, Andy. It smelled awful, there was soot across the roof and charred books sat in piles. There was no structural damage to the building but Freedom has no insurance and were already mired in the financial shit. Looking at the horrific mess, I thought the shop would have to close for months, but this morning they’re back open for business.
Before you joke about anarchists owning a building, or organising a clean-up, read up on the rich history of working class self-organisation the movement draws on. At its height in 1930s Spain, anarchists ran collectivised hospitals and operated Spain’s most popular daily newspaper.
Egypt’s Black Bloc —An Exclusive Interview
All afternoon last Thursday, demonstrators in Egypt were tearing chunks from a concrete wall on Cairo’s Qasr Al-Aini Street, hurling the stones at riot police who attempted to disperse them with tear gas. The wall had been built by police to keep such protests contained to Tahrir Square, but now it was providing the protestors with ammunition. Suddenly, two youths wearing black ski masks, black sweatshirts, and matching black Adidas athletic pants sauntered up to the wall, carrying lit Molotov cocktails. The pair moved with an odd air of casualness as they scaled the barrier, hurled their fiery payload at the police, then rejoined the crowd.
The attack was one of the first appearances in Egypt of the Black Bloc, a protest formation, long used by anarchists in Europe and North America, involving the use of black masks and clothing to conceal protesters’ identities and project an image of ominous unity. No Western media groups have been able to talk to Egypt’s black bloc—but on a visit to Cairo last week, we scored an interview.
This new mutation in the protest vocabulary instantly triggered a spiraling debate in the streets, on the Internet, on talk shows and in the pages of Egypt’s politically diverse newspapers. Depending on who you ask, the black bloc is either a serious response to state repression of protests, a violent menace to public order, or an exercise in adolescent silliness.
The Greeks Just Won’t Stop Fighting and I’m Bored
It’s May 2010 and I’m sitting with my coworkers in front of the miniature TV we managed to get the IT guy to install in our office in Athens. We’re watching the news for updates on the bombing of Marfin Bank on Stadiou Street. No one in the office is doing any work. In fact, those in my department are the only people who showed up to work at all, since today marks one of the first in a series of national strikes.
Instead, we’re all crouching in front of the TV, which prompts my boss to shout from the door of her office, “Can someone tell me what could be so important that you guys have yet to post anything about Lady Gaga’s Armani costume for American Idol?” Bless her, she likes mixing her morning pills with a shot of whiskey.
One year later—October 2011—and I’ve flown to Athens from London with three VICE staffers to cover a two-day-long national strike for our series Teenage Riot. It’s boiling hot, the people are angry, and I’m an intern desperate for a job at VICE, so I spend the next couple of days running through protesting crowds and away from blocks of rock, clouds of tear gas, and flagpole-swinging communists. I have no idea how hanging out in the closet of Greek Vogue as a teenager led to this, but I’m loving it.
But now, I’m so fucking bored of it. Yesterday saw yet another national strike in Greece, one that was very similar to the one we filmed last year. The weather was perversely hot for mid-October, thousands of people gathered in Syntagma Square to protest a bunch of new austerity measures, Molotov cocktails were thrown in the air, and a man died.
I understand that should make me angry, but all it’s done is make me feel depressed and confused. It’s been three years since the bombing of Marfin Bank and, in these three years, I’ve managed to move from London to Athens, then back again, change jobs twice, go through a couple of boyfriends, drop acid at fashion week, and attend a few too many weddings.
The place where I come from, however, hasn’t changed one bit. It keeps burning itself to the ground, being refurbished, then burned down again. Every year, a little before the passing of new austerity measures, we hear that things are looking up—that the economy is back on track—only to then see bigger cuts to our parents’ pension cheques and a rise of support for the extremist right-wing party, Golden Dawn.
Is this madness ever going to end? And is protesting (read: rioting) really the best way to go about changing things?
Having fled to London just before the real shit hit the fan, I hardly feel like I have the right to pass judgement on a situation I only encounter on Christmas and during the summer holidays, so I called my friend Petros to chat about what’s going on.
VICE: Hey man. First of all, a guy died today and a guy died almost exactly one year ago.
Petros: That’s true. But the guy today died because of heart failure during the demo before any tear gas was thrown, which was what caused the death of that protester last year. Not that that makes things any better. Also, both guys were PAME (Communist front) members.
Spooky. What really upset me last year was how PAME was protesting alongside us on the first day, but turned against us by the second. My boss and I got chased by a group of men waving red flagpoles at us.
The thing with PAME is that they would always hold their own demos at completely separate times from the rest of us. So, when they announced they’d be joining in last year, that was a first. Everyone was surprised. After what happened, they announced that was the last time they were going to join in and just went back to their old way of doing things, which is meeting earlier than the rest of us, walking to the parliament, then walking right past it. That’s pretty much it. That’s what they did yesterday, too.
Members of PAME demonstrating.
So they pretty much censored themselves. What about far-right elements? What’s the presence of the Golden Dawn at demos these days?
Non-existent, or at least not obvious. Of course there must be far-right elements, but the larger sentiment is mostly liberal. In fact, a lot of yesterday’s chants were against the Golden Dawn or linking the Golden Dawn to the police. My two favorites are, “Let’s get together and kick the Nazis out of Parliament!” and “Beware, Beware. Golden Dawners in uniform!”