CAIRO — An unpredictable new element has entered Egypt’s wave of political unrest: a mysterious group of masked young men called the Black Bloc who present themselves as the defenders of protesters opposed to the Islamist president’s rule.
They boast that they’re willing to use force to fight back against Islamists who have attacked protesters in the past — or against police who crack down on demonstrations. The youths with faces hidden under black masks have appeared among stone-throwing protesters in clashes with police around Egypt the past five days in the wave of political violence that has shaken the country.
The Black Bloc models itself after anarchist groups by the same name in Europe and the United States that have participated in anti-globalization and other protests the past decade.
In Egypt, the group’s secrecy and self-professed dispersed structure make it difficult to determine its actual scope. It communicates mainly by online social media. Its members’ identities are unknown and faces unseen, so it’s impossible to confirm the authenticity of those who claim to speak in its name.
It’s even impossible to know whether every masked young man in the streets belongs to the block or is just a protester hiding his face — or if the distinction even matters. In Tahrir on Monday, vendors were selling black masks that young men crowded to buy.
“We are the Black Bloc … seeking people’s liberation, the fall of corruption and the toppling of the tyrant,” proclaimed a video announcing the group’s formation, posted online Thursday.
He said the bloc has 10,000 members nationwide, organized into groups of around 20 each, but with no chain of command. Members are trained in self-defense and how to deal with tear gas.
“Violence is not an action but a reaction,” he said. He depicted the situation as an inevitable clash between the opposition and government. “What is coming is worse.”
Monday night, a number of protesters praised the masked men in Tahrir Square.
“They aren’t here for sabotage or vandalism, but to protect us from Brotherhood militias,” said Ahmed Ali, an engineer.
Ali said police are now “suppressing the revolution on behalf of the murderer Morsi … So we need these men to defend the revolution.”