CAIRO – Egypt's revolutionary activists, overshadowed since leading the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, showed a new vigor Tuesday, scuffling with supporters of the military-backed government in Cairo's Tahrir Square and wrecking a state memorial dedicated to slain protesters only hours after it was inaugurated.
The vandalizing of the memorial reflected the youth activists' anger against what they see as an attempt by the current military-backed rulers, boosted by popular support since the July coup against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, to paper over past bloodshed and rewrite history.
The interim prime minister inaugurated the memorial's empty base – a statue to top it is planned later – with great fanfare on Monday afternoon. By Tuesday morning, the pedestal was reduced to a lump of concrete covered in revolutionary graffiti after activists before dawn ripped off its stone cladding and spray-painted it with slogans denouncing both Morsi and his nemesis, military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
"The revolution continues," one slogan across it proclaimed. "Down with all those who betrayed- military, former regime, or Muslim Brotherhood." Activists set a mock coffin draped with the Egyptian flag onto the pedestal.
Secular, leftist youth activists were at the forefront of Egypt's revolutions, starting with the 2011 uprising that ousted the autocrat Mubarak. But they have been overshadowed since. They have also been divided over how to deal with the new order after the military removed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president, on July 3 following massive protests against him.
Since then, the streets have been dominated by pro-military rallies or smaller, near daily protests by Morsi's backers, amid a heavy crackdown on Islamists. Non-Islamist critics of the new leadership have been reluctant to speak out for fear of being seen as supporting the Brotherhood and Morsi, whom they also sharply oppose.
But revolutionary groups were energized by the second anniversary Tuesday of the "Mohammed Mahmoud" clashes – one of the fiercest confrontations between protesters and security forces, named after the street off Tahrir where they took place.
On Tuesday afternoon, they turned out in small numbers in the square – a few thousands – but their return to Tahrir was a rare anti-military protest by the secular revolutionaries since Morsi's ouster.
"We are against both the Brotherhood and the military because they did not do anything for the revolution," said Omar el-Sibai, a 19-year-old architecture student. "And now if anybody says his opinion and is against the authorities, he is either a terrorist or Brotherhood."
Like others in the square, he denounced authorities for setting up a memorial to martyrs while neglecting a top demand of the revolution – retribution against those behind the killing of protesters.
Chants to drum beats echoed in the square, "Both the military and the Brotherhood can't be trusted" and "El-Sissi, it is now your turn." A banner in the square showed Morsi, el-Sissi and four other Brotherhood and military officials, with nooses around their necks.
Scuffles erupted when a group of supporters of the military also entered, carrying portraits of el-Sissi – whose birthday was on Tuesday. The two sides hurled stones at each other in intermittent clashes as activists chased out the military backers. Police fired one volley of tear gas, but largely stayed clear of the square.
Shortly before midnight, black-clad anti-riot police made a final push, fired heavy tear gas and police vehicles swept through the square dispersing the demonstration. Shortly after, army vehicles and closed some entrances to the square.
No Morsi supporters were seen in the square.
The 2011 Mohammed Mahmoud clashes were prompted by a crackdown on anti-police brutality protests that spiraled into demands for the end of rule by the military, in power after Mubarak's fall until Morsi's 2012 inauguration. More than 40 protesters were killed. Last year, three were killed when police under Morsi cracked on down protests marking the anniversary – turning the date into a rallying point for sentiment against the military, police and the Brotherhood.
The government's move to erect a monument in Tahrir turned the occasion into a fight over the memory of hundreds killed in Egypt's waves of protests – against Mubarak, against the military and against the Brotherhood.
Officials said the monument honors martyrs of "the two revolutions" – the anti-Mubarak uprising and the giant wave of anti-Morsi protests by millions before his ouster.
Infuriated revolutionary activists point out that most protesters killed over the past 2½ years died at the hands of police who have not faced trials and remain on duty. They say security forces have returned to the brutal ways they were notorious for under Mubarak – now under the pretext of fighting a war against terrorism.
Activists painted over an iconic mural of graffiti immortalizing martyrs on Mohammed Mahmoud Street. They covered it over with a camouflage pattern in shades of red, symbolizing blood security and military forces have spilled in crackdowns.
Many of the activists in Tahrir on Tuesday wore eye patches, commemorating protesters who were shot in the eyes and blinded during the Mohammed Mahmoud clashes.
The activists' protests put supporters of the military in a difficult rhetorical corner. Military supporters have depicted the military and the new government as the inheritors of the revolution after removing Morsi and his Brotherhood.
After initially trying to blame the pedestal vandalism on the Brotherhood, commentators on pro-military media criticized the activists who did it, saying they were only helping the Islamists.
In the same vein, Tamarod, the group that spearheaded the June 30 protests against Morsi and supports the new government, called the vandalism "regrettable."
The group also warned against protests Tuesday, saying the Brotherhood will try to infiltrate them and "drag the revolution into violence."
One of the military supporters in Tahrir, Zinat Fouad, said she was driven out of the square when activists threw stones. She said she had wanted to commemorate martyrs and show support for el-Sissi.
"Those who died are also our children," the 59-year-old employee of the tax agency said, wearing a military cap over her headscarf and an el-Sissi pins on her jacket.
But, she insisted, police were never to blame for protester deaths.
"They were killed by the Brotherhood, who wanted to divide Egyptians."