Protesters Once Again Clash With Police In Tahrir Square
Nine months after their protests brought down the 30 year old regime of Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are once again in the streets of Cairo protesting their government:
CAIRO — A police action to roust a few hundred protesters out of Tahrir Square on Saturday instead drew thousands of people from across Egyptian society into the streets, where the violence continued on Sunday. The confrontations were the most violent manifestation so far of growing anger at the military-led interim government.
In a battle reminiscent of the clashes that led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago, a mass of protesters converged on Tahrir Square, fled before an onslaught of riot police officers firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and then surged back to retake and hold the square through the early hours of Sunday.
State media reported Saturday night that more than 700 people had been injured, including 40 riot police, and at least one civilian died of a gunshot wound. Protesters operated a makeshift field hospital in small mosque near the square, where doctors said Sunday morning that they had treated at least 400 people for serious injuries and hundreds more who suffered from tear gas. The smell of gas was still heavy around the square.
The clashes continued Sunday through midday as a crowd of perhaps a few hundred who stayed in the square through the night swelled back to thousands. Though demonstrators occupied the square unmolested, a battalion of young men that filled a city block was charging against a wall of police, who fired tear gas to defend the headquarters of the interior ministry. Witnesses said the battle had pushed back and forth through the night.
“I saw the revolution being slain so I had to come,” said Ahmed Hamza, 41, a lawyer, watching the fray. Like many in the square, he vowed to stay until the ruling military council committed to a swift exit from power but also said he feared the generals welcomed the chaos as pretext to cancel elections. “Today there will be violence,” he predicted, awaiting new moves to clear the square.
At least three prominent political candidates suspended their parliamentary campaigns to focus on the crisis.
In a television interview late Saturday night, General Mohsen Fungary, a spokesman for the ruling military council, promised a formal response the next day. He blamed demonstrators for igniting the violence, suggested protestors were “enemies” of Egypt, and he hinted that unnamed satellite news channels—presumably Al Jazeera—had played a role. “The youth are blinded to the reality of the situation,” he said.
Coming a day after a huge Islamist demonstration and just more than a week before the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the outpouring of anger was the strongest rebuke yet with the military’s attempts to grant itself permanent governmental powers. And it was a reuniting of Islamist and liberal protest movements that had drifted apart since the early days of the uprising.
This time, instead of chanting for the fall of Mr. Mubarak, the demonstrators were chanting for the fall of the ruling military council that initially presented itself as the revolution’s savior.
“The generals said to us, ‘We are your partners,’ and we believed them,” said Tarek Saaed, 55, a construction safety supervisor who used a cane to walk among the boisterous crowds in the square. “Then the next day we find out they are partners with Mubarak,” he added, calling the day a turning point for Egypt.
This is hardly surprising, really. Throughout history, military coups, and that is exactly what the downfall of Hosni Mubarak was in the end, have typically not led to a free society. In the end, the military, is primarily concerned with stability and maintaining its position in society. In the case of the Egyptian military, we’re talking about an institution that has led a privileged existence since the days of Nassar and Sadat. It’s not surprising that they’d be reluctant to cede control over to civilian authorities that aren’t necessarily trustworthy, especially since some of those civilian groups have talked about thinks like abandoning the peace treaty with Israel, which is apparently widely supported among the Egyptian military if only because they know that military conflict with Israel would be a disaster for them in the end.
As I noted back in February, though, the protests that created the conditions that allowed the military to push Mubarak aside and take control (hence why it was, in fact, a coup) had created expectations among the people that the military might find hard to control:
[T]he extent to which the public has become engaged over the past three weeks seems to make it unlikely that they’d be able to turn Egypt into a military state. However, stranger things have happened and the Egyptian military now seems to have tied itself inexorably to the “stability” of the state. The next move is in their court.
As these protests indicate, there’s at least some segment of the Egyptian public who now believes that the military will not live up to the promises they made in February. So, they’ve returned in February. The difference this time seems to be that the same military that restrained Mubarak from a bloody crackdown nine months ago doesn’t necessarily feel compelled to restrain itself this time around. If the protests continue, those could end up getting quite bloody indeed.
Photo via New York Times