CAIRO // Egyptian military leaders offered a Facebook apology to protesting youth yesterday, hours after soldiers used unprecedented force to break up a late-night demonstration in the capital.
The move to disperse protesters shortly after midnight yesterday immediately prompted an afternoon rally in Cairo's Tahrir square, and raised questions about the patience of the two-week-old military government for demonstrations that have continued after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the former president.
"We love our army, but we don't want to see this, we don't want to start seeing them as we do the Interior Ministry, which we hate," said
Abdel Farouk Ahmed, a 28-year-old unemployed university graduate who was in Tahrir Square protesting and said he witnessed the military's charge in the early morning.
Several hundred military police wearing masks moved in to clear Tahrir Square and a smaller protest nearby about an hour after the start of a midnight curfew, according to Mr Ahmed and four other men who said they were there. The soldiers struck at the demonstrators with wooden sticks and electrified batons, and tore down tents that had been erected in the centre of the square, the witnesses said.
Soldiers have been deployed in Tahrir Square since January 28 and have often developed a close rapport with the protesters. They were criticised for sitting on the sidelines during deadly clashes between the demonstrators and pro-regime protesters on February 2 and 3, but until now they have not attempted to intervene to end the protests.
Tens of thousands had gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday afternoon to commemorate the two-week anniversary of Mr Mubarak's resignation and to press their demands that the military dismiss members of the cabinet who were appointed by the former president but remain in their posts.
By the time the military moved in to clear the square, less than 2,000 protesters were left, and many were setting up tents to stay overnight, the witnesses said.
In a message posted on its Facebook page yesterday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said the clashes between soldiers and "the sons of the revolution" were "unintended". The Council created the Facebook account on February 17 to communicate with youth protesters.
"[The military] will not and did not issue orders of aggression against the sons of this great people, and ... it will take all the precautions in its ability to see to it that this is not repeated in the future," the Council said.
In a second message yesterday afternoon, the Council suggested that the clashes were the result of attacks on soldiers by unspecified "scheming elements attempting the corruption of the revolution ... and the driving of a wedge between it and the Armed Forces".
These outsiders, the military said, showed "aggression against members of the Armed Forces with stones and glass".
But the group of several hundred protesters who gathered in Tahrir again yesterday and blocked off part of the square's streets rejected that account of the clashes and said they had been attacked without provocation. They chanted "attacking the protesters is a shameful act" and "the blood of the martyrs cannot be for nothing".
The military's apology to the protesters coincided with the eight-member constitutional committee's proposals to reform 11 articles of the Egyptian constitution that would place term limits on the presidency, make it easier for opposition parties to nominate a challenger and re-institute judicial supervision of elections.
The proposed changes, which had been widely anticipated and hinted at by committee members in the past week, would limit the president to serving two four-year terms, Tareq el Bishry, the committee's head, told Reuters. Mr Mubarak was in the midst of his fifth six-year term when he resigned.