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Group Of Violent Anarchists Emerges Amid Egypt's Political Turmoil

A group of anarchic young men and women in Egypt roam through protests, faces covered, and refuse to speak to media. They bill themselves as armed resistance and have flooded YouTube with videos of themselves making Molotov cocktails and threatening Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. The country's prosecutor general designated them a home-grown terrorist group on Tuesday. Seasoned activists who blame the government for the root of the violence over the past five days say the group is counter-productive and their methods hurt the cause.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Now to Egypt and news of the emergence of a group that's worrying some Egyptians. It calls itself the Black Bloc and it's made up of violent anarchists. They have vowed armed resistance to protect anti-government protesters from attacks by Egyptian security forces. The country's prosecutor-general has labeled the Black Bloc a terrorist organization.

But as we hear from NPR's Leila Fadel, some analysts and activists say the government is exaggerating the threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: They mostly come out at night these days. The young men and women move in packs wearing black masks. Some wield clubs. They move around demonstrations like this one in front of the presidential palace, watchful and wary.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

FADEL: Since the movement appeared in mid-January, Black Bloc has become the self-declared guardian of the anti-government protest movement. Egypt's leadership has condemned the organization and it has quickly been demonized in the state media. President Mohammed Morsi's allies in the Muslim Brotherhood call it the root of the violence that has arisen in Egypt.

It's also been accused of a slew of violent attacks, including arson and assaulting government buildings, as well as acts of civil disobedience like trying to disrupt Cairo's metro system.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS)

FADEL: The group has been talked about so much in local media and by government officials, everyone knows what the Black Bloc is.

In the streets of the working-class district of Imbaba, Hagar Mohammed and her friend, Iman, walk out of a computer class together. They don't pay much attention to politics, but they have a visceral reaction to Black Bloc.

HAGAR MOHAMMED: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: They're trying to destroy the country, Hagar says.

Others on the street echo the sentiment. Why do they cover their faces? Why haven't they been arrested?

In a video posted on the Internet last month, Black Bloc introduced itself to Egypt. In the dead of night, young masked men marched along the Nile, just off Tahrir Square; faces covered in masks, some carrying sticks and flags with the letter A, for anarchist. They are faceless and voiceless. Words on a black backdrop spell out their message: We've been seeking for years to liberate mankind, destroy corruption and overthrow tyrants.

The message goes on to say Black Bloc will confront what it calls the fascist regime of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Tahrir Square, black masks are all the rage these days. It's a new fashion, says one street vendor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But despite their growing mystique, these young men and women number only a few hundred at most, say seasoned activists here, and they aren't capable of all the violence that's been blamed on them.

Hossam el Hamalawy is part of the revolutionary movement who has been involved in the protests since the beginning. He says he doesn't like Black Bloc's tactics.

HOSSAM EL HAMALAWY: Small groups of, like, hooded and masked men and women, they cannot defeat the state. Even when they, like, when we get all happy that, yeah, maybe a police officer got beaten up here and there, I mean, that's not going to purge, you know, the police. Actually, you're inviting their attacks. You're scaring away, I mean, some protesters who would have loved to join these marches.

FADEL: But Hamalawy doesn't blame a few hundred kids, as he describes them, for the violence. He says it is the state that has weapons and attacks protesters, not Black Bloc.

Black Bloc claims its creation is in part a reaction to an incident last December when the Muslim Brotherhood called out its supporters to confront protesters outside the presidential palace. Fatal clashes ensued. There were deaths and injuries on both sides.

Issander El Amrani is an Egypt expert and author of the Arabist blog.

ISSANDER EL AMRANI: I think it's, you know, that was a watershed moment for many of the street protesters because what they saw was essentially the ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party, turn into a militia and begin to, you know, carry out, you know - because it was frustrated the police wasn't doing anything.

FADEL: Amrani says the hysteria in local media and within the government is a lot bigger than Black Bloc. But he says the group could be a very early indicator of something much larger - the radicalization of the protest movement.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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