/ 21 November 2011

Egypt army’s crackdown on Tahrir protesters leaves 13 dead

Egypt Army's Crackdown On Tahrir Protesters Leaves 13 Dead

At least 13 people have been killed in a violent assault by the Egyptian army and police to evict protesters from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, according to doctors.

Hundreds of soldiers and police, backed by armoured personnel carriers, used teargas, rubber bullets and batons to evict several thousand protesters from the central Cairo square that was the epicentre of the popular uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak nine months ago.

They chased protesters out of most of the square, dismantling their tents and tearing down their banners.

Mass protests against Egypt’s military junta have swept beyond Cairo and into several major cities across the country, raising questions about the viability of elections due in just over a week.

Following a night of violence that left two dead and more than 600 injured, protests erupted in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and further demonstrations were reported in the towns of Port Said, Tanta, Mansoura and Sohag. In Suez, a large urban centre on the Suez Canal, protesters clashed with armed police who fired teargas in an attempt to disperse crowds.

Sporadic attacks
Meanwhile in the capital, demonstrators — still occupying Tahrir Square — continued to repel sporadic attacks from security forces. Heavy fighting is still taking place in side streets off the central plaza, particularly around the area of the interior ministry where a large contingent of riot troops has been stationed to ward off protesters.

Critics of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), which took power after the toppling of Mubarak, are demanding the ruling generals set a date for the return of the country to civilian rule.

Parliamentary elections are due to begin on November 28 but under the current transition plan the power of new MPs will be closely circumscribed with executive authority continuing to reside with Scaf and no date yet set for a presidential vote.

Many activists poured scorn on the military’s promises to defend the revolution. “Mubarak’s regime did not fall. Mubarak’s regime is in full power,” claimed Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a prominent member of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

Egypt’s interior ministry said its forces had acted with “admirable” self-restraint despite multiple eyewitness accounts of police firing teargas, rubber-coated steel bullets and “birdshot” pellet cartridges directly into crowds from armoured vehicles — often at head height.

In a statement, it said that the forced evacuation of Tahrir Square on Saturday morning, which prompted the subsequent clashes, was “in the public’s interest, aiming to benefit civilians and lighten traffic congestion”. The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, himself a target of public anger, also called on protesters to leave the square.

Denouncing protesters
A member of Scaf, General Mohsen el-Fangari, took to the airwaves on Saturday night to denounce the protesters. “What is the point of being in Tahrir?” he said, speaking by phone to the popular al-Hayat TV channel. “What is the point of this strike, of the million marches? … The aim of what is going on is to shake the backbone of the state, which is the armed forces”.

He added: “If security is not applied, we will implement the rule of law. Anyone who does wrong will pay for it.”

Amid uncertainty over whether the parliamentary poll would go ahead as planned, several candidates announced they were suspending their campaigns. Mahmoud Gozlan, spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood movement which is expected to be the biggest single winner in the new Parliament, said recent attempts by the interim government to force through a set of “supra-constitutional” principles that could permanently entrench the army’s control of political life were a “mine” planted on the road to democracy. But he did not comment on whether or not the Brotherhood’s electoral vehicle — the Freedom and Justice party — would continue its campaign.

The military said it was working with police forces to ensure the ballot remained secure and a nationwide plan was in place to prevent acts of “rioting” or “thuggery”.

Mahmoud Salem, a prominent blogger who is running for Parliament but who has now frozen his campaign, said: “All options are on the table but right now — given the state Egypt is in — nobody can see how the military council can pull off these elections.

‘How can I continue?’
“I’m at the international eye hospital at the moment with my friend Malek Mustafa, who has been shot in the head by police with a pellet cartridge and looks likely to lose his eye. How can I continue?”

The trouble began on Saturday when riot police moved to disperse tents set up after a large rally calling on Scaf to return the country to civilian rule. Protesters succeeded in driving the security forces from the square and captured one of their trucks.

Crowds jumped up and down on the vehicle, chanting “The interior ministry are thugs” and called for the downfall of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the country’s de facto leader since Mubarak’s departure. It was later set ablaze.

By mid-afternoon police had returned to Tahrir in far larger numbers and begun firing from armoured vehicles. As the night wore on and control of Tahrir shifted back and forth between the security forces and demonstrators, running battles spilled down side streets and along several of downtown Cairo’s main thoroughfares.

Military control
“The scenes are reminiscent of the Friday of Anger,” said journalist and pro-change activist Hossam el-Hamalawy, referring to January 28 — the day protesters beat Mubarak’s security forces off the streets during the uprising. “We are being hit with showers of US-made teargas canisters and I’ve watched with my own eyes at least five people being struck by rubber bullets.”

Many expressed scepticism about the elections, saying they were designed to entrench military control over the country but most insisted they still wanted the vote to go ahead. “The generals want to rule Egypt but this is our revolution,” said Ahmed Mohamed, a 24-year-old accountant.

“Look around you — you don’t see different political parties or rival candidates, you just see the Egyptian people. People have come down from their homes to join the fight; we are battling the remnants of Mubarak’s regime who remain in power at the moment and both this and the elections are all part of that same process.”

On Friday, a group of prominent intellectuals, including former UN nuclear weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei, unveiled an alternative transition plan which would involve postponing the parliamentary ballot and wresting executive control of Egypt away from the armed forces while a new Constitution is drawn up.

The ruling generals have yet to respond to the proposal. —