A second day of violence in Cairo saw the death toll of protesters rise to nine and widespread signs that the military had unleashed a brutal crackdown on protesters.
Egyptian military cracks down
CAIRO // Downtown Cairo was partially transformed into a militarised zone yesterday, as soldiers set up razor-wire barricades and concrete walls to hold back tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating against the government in and around Tahrir Square.
The second day of violence saw the death toll of protesters rise to nine and widespread signs that the military had unleashed a brutal crackdown on protesters. Images were broadcast on television and on social networking sites of attacks on unarmed civilians, including a young, veiled woman beaten and stripped of her clothing.
At least 361 people were reported injured, according to the health ministry.
The events cast a shadow over Egypt's elections for the lower house of parliament, which smoothly finished the second of three rounds on Thursday, and are set to start the final round on January 3. Islamist political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Freedom and Justice Party and Salafist Al Nour Party, were expected to win as many as 70 per cent of the seats, according to unofficial information released by election observers and the political parties themselves.
Until the latest clashes, it seemed that a gamble by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), the group of military commanders running the country during its transition, to hold elections as planned would reduce the simmering tensions.
The calm was shattered early on Friday when security forces allegedly beat up a man who was part of a group of people refusing to leave a sit-in on the street in front of the cabinet. They were protesting against the military's decision to install Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister and preventing him from entering his office.
People poured into the streets on Friday afternoon and throughout yesterday. Television showed unidentified men, some wearing camouflage pants or other parts of a military uniform, throwing rocks at protesters from the top of the cabinet headquarters.
The dead included Emad Effat, a senior cleric in the government-run Islamic law institute Dar Al Ifta, and a young medical student at Ain Shams University named Alaa Abdel Hadi. Thousands of mourners from the funerals of the men marched into Tahrir Square yesterday.
The attacks portended a political crisis for the military rulers. A civilian advisory panel, created this month by Scaf in part to ease tensions and suspicions that it was attempting to hold onto its complete control of the country, announced it was suspending its work on Friday night in protest of the violence against protesters.
Eleven of the 30 members of the council resigned, according to the Agence France-Presse.
By yesterday afternoon, the streets were covered with a thick layer of rubbish, concrete pieces and glass, as protesters and soldiers hurled rocks and Molotov cocktails at each other in running battles. Smoke billowed from several buildings, including a historic library, and tents that were torched by soldiers trying to clear the square of the remnants of a sit-in that started in late November to protest the military's stewardship of the government.
"They are laughing at us," said Barakat el Ayeek, 39, a recently unemployed merchant as he pointed at the line of soldiers at the edge of Tahrir Square. "They want chaos so they can put back the old regime. Nothing has changed since the revolution. No work, no freedom, no money."
A section of Qasr al Aini Street, a major traffic artery into Tahrir Square that contains the parliament and other key government buildings, was closed to all pedestrians by barbed-wire on one end and huge concrete blocks near the entrance to the square. The Egyptian Scientific Institute, which contained 200,000 books dating back to 1798, appeared to be nothing more than a burnt-out husk with a collapsed roof.
There were also attacks on members of the media, which has been singled out by the military as having instigated violence with coverage of the protests. Plainclothes officers stormed into a hotel where Al Jazeera, the Qatari-based news channel, was filming the fighting in Tahrir Square and threw its equipment off the balcony, according to eyewitnesses.
Mr Ganzouri, the prime minister appointed by Scaf and a former official under Hosni Mubarak, denied the military or police had acted inappropriately. He said the protesters were "anti-revolution" and said that the gunshot wounds of some protesters came from an outside group, not the security forces.
In the latest confrontations there was a conspicuous absence of tear gas, which was used extensively by the police in November to disperse crowds. At least 42 people died in those clashes, some from asphyxiation related to breathing too much of the gas, and thousands were injured.
The soldiers yesterday swept in and out of Tahrir Square, armed with 3-foot truncheons and riot shields.
"What do we want?" said Wafaa Moursi, 40, the owner of an import-export company in Tahrir Square. "We want to stop the killing and someone to really listen to us. We don't want those people we see on TV with gold watches and suits. Those people are not us. We want the system to be broken down."