x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Egyptian government returns to using force against protesters

The Egyptian government's conciliatory stance came to an end his week when the military used force to break up a late-night demonstration in Tahrir Square.

CAIRO // Egypt's military government skirted confrontation during its two months in power and instead sought the support of youth protesters by pulling back when their efforts to break up demonstrations turned violent.

But the conciliatory stance came to an end his week when the military used force to break up a late-night demonstration in Tahrir Square and a military court sentenced a critic of the armed forces to three years in prison.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which assumed power after the February 11 resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, has demonstrated that it is now looking to establish clear limits to the political instability gripping the country, said Major General Mohammed Kadry Said, a retired Egyptian air defence officer and military expert at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank.

"Such chaos affects the economy mainly, and puts the country in an unstable situation," Mr Said said. "The solution is the following: apply some rules, and these rules should be applied on everyone coming to Tahrir — they should have the right to gather, but they should respect the limits."

At Tahrir Square, soldiers swinging batons and firing rifles in the air dispersed a group of protesters shortly after the start of a 2am curfew on Saturday morning, according to witnesses. The assault on the protesters — who were guarding a group of 20-30 military officers who had switched sides to join the protest — left as many as three dead, medical sources said, and strained ties between youth protest groups and the military.

In a series of public statements following the incident, military officers said they acted against a group of "outlaws" spurred on by a "counter-revolutionary" member of the National Democratic Party, the former ruling party. Protesters have rejected that narrative, and argued that soldiers cleared the square primarily to arrest the dissident officers.

The statements of the Supreme Council, which says it plans to lead Egypt until presidential elections in November, contrasted with the aftermath of previous clashes in which it was quick to acknowledge mistakes.

On February 26, military police officers scattered a demonstration in the square with electrified batons, but the next day the military apologised for the incident on its Facebook page, saying it was "unintended". The military broke up a second demonstration at the square on March 9, and detained a number of protesters. A week later, however, it bowed to local and international outcry and promised to investigate allegations that soldiers tortured detainees.

After agreeing to a number of protesters' demands in the last two months, the military had found it "very much annoying" that demonstrators still would not adhere to an official 2am to 5am curfew, Mr Said said.

"The military wants to reach some sort of agreement that every side will respect. Otherwise the problem will continue," he said.

The military demonstrated yesterday that it will also take a harder line on critics by sentencing Mikael Nabil, a blogger, to three years in prison for "publishing false information" and "insulting the armed forces".

Mr Nabil, a past critic of the military, wrote a blog post that compiled a series of allegations of human-rights abuses perpetrated by soldiers, mostly sourced from international and local media reports. Human Rights Watch had last week called for his acquittal.

The military's toughened strategy will come with political costs, analysts said.

Youth protesters are already citing the Tahrir square incidents as evidence for why soldiers should not be allowed to rule unchecked over civilians.

The Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, an umbrella group representing the country's largest youth protest blocs, announced on Sunday that it would break off talks with the military following the Saturday clash. Youth leaders have held frequent meetings with senior military officials and, by most accounts, had significant influence on decisions made by the Supreme Council.

"Our coalition suspends its dialogue with the military council, and they will start a sit-in starting next week if there are no interrogations into what happened yesterday and if the people responsible for those incidents are not held accountable," said a statement approved by the youth coalition, which is made up of the largest secular youth opposition groups and youth from the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamist group.

Nasser Abdulhamid, a coalition spokesman, said that a continued presence of protesters on the streets would be needed "to ensure that the gains of the revolution are fulfilled".

"Violence in politics complicates the crisis and opens the door to destroy the relationship between the people and its army," he said.