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Letter From Cairo

Al Ahly fans in Cairo. (Amr Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

In Cairo last week, on a crowded public bus near Tahrir Square, passengers were trapped, pressed tightly together and choking on tear gas, as the vehicle struggled to maneuver around a standoff between hapless police conscripts and a crowd of young men making a stand along the bank of the Nile. The commuters were furious. "Who are these people?" some spat as the bus inched past stunted teenagers throwing rocks and making obscene gestures.

That question has been asked again and again over the last two years as nearly identical scenes have played out with numbing regularity. Most Cairenes, President Mohamed Morsi, his cohorts in the Muslim Brotherhood, and the generals who ruled the country before them have agreed on a quick verdict: that "these people" are hired thugs, pawns either of shadowy remnants of the old regime or of unnamed foreign governments. As Morsi charged last week, they are "the counterrevolution incarnate."

Some among the rock-wielding crowd might indeed be paid agents. Sometimes groups of them arrive in the city center in the back of mini pickup trucks. Some young protestors appear to take direction from older men with mustaches and bad leather jackets. Sometimes their faces bear knife scars, broken noses, and other telltale signs of lives spent in Cairo's underworld. Often their eyes are glazed, and their speech is erratic from the use of cheap pills. That -- and the fact that the Mubarak regime cultivated an auxiliary militia of drug addicts and criminals in poor neighborhoods for use when it was more convenient for civilian forces to carry out oppression -- suggests that some of the chaos might, in fact, be organized.

But it would be a mistake to dismiss the protesters as paid thugs, or to blame the unrest on revolutionary anniversary pangs, Muslim Brotherhood misrule, or a court's verdict -- although those are all elements of it. True, it is difficult to systematically track the demographics

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