Cairo Rises Against Military Rule

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The protests started on Friday 18 November. A mass rally was called by Islamic groups and initially, it was dominated by them. Secular groups in Egypt — who do not generally have the discipline or organisational reach of their religious counterparts — did participate but were by far in the minority. It seemed they had dissipated their capacity to stage mass protests by calling for too many protests, too often.

The protest was dubbed the Friday of One Demand. That one demand was for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who had assumed power in February, to complete a speedy and complete transfer to civilian rule. Tens of thousands of Islamists chanted for the military to release secular blogger and activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, who has been held in a military court for months. It was an important show of unity at a time when the pluralist protest movement that had driven the dictator from power looked divided. (See video footage of the event here.)

This unity came largely from the fear that the increasingly assertive army was intending to maintain a leading role after the upcoming parliamentary elections. Indeed, the army had just released a set of "supra-constitutional principles" which propose putting army affairs beyond the control of the parliament and president. Civilians including activists and critics of military rule continue to be hauled in front of military courts.

At the end of the day, when the rally was over, the stages taken down, and the busses organised by the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups started taking people back to their suburbs and villages, a hard core of protesters remained. They were determined to set up camp in the square, and stay there until their demands were met. In this group of a few thousand, the proportions of protesters were reversed, with liberals and leftists making up the majority.

The first clashes occured that night, with men in civilian dress, some armed, attempting to push through the checkpoints set up by the protesters.

The battle began in earnest however, on Saturday morning at around 10am. Police poured into the square and began tearing down tents, beating and arresting protesters. They would soon be joined by armed civilians, who reportedly menaced the protesters in full view of the police without recrimination, further adding to suspicion they were an organised group of Baltagiya (thugs). Then the soldiers turned up.

By the time I arrived a little after midday, there was not a tent in sight, and the central roundabout of Tahrir Square was lined by a ring of riot police with shields visors and batons. Only a few dozen protesters were still visible, gathering in clusters and chanting.

A few hours later, as first dozens then hundreds of protesters poured into the square, the tide began to turn. A little after 2pm, the police had been driven out of the square, and a crowd of a thousand or more were celebrating around a smashed police truck chanting, "the people want the fall of the Field Marshall" in reference to Mohamad Tantawi, Mubarak’s long time defense minister, and the head of the junta that has ruled since his removal.

This celebratory scene was soon interrupted by fresh waves of riot police attacking the square. A violent confrontation ensued with police attacking using teargas and batons, and protesters fighting back with pieces of pavement ripped up, smashed and then thrown.

Soon after I left at around 4pm the first reports of buckshot and rubber bullets, often aimed at face height and causing many eye wounds, began to emerge. Things only escalated from there. By nightfall it was a full scale battle. Live bullets were used sporadically and by morning two deaths and dozens of injuries had been reported.

The violence, which had worked on previous occasions to crush sit-ins launched in the square, had the opposite effect this time, with hundreds, then thousands pouring in to defend their comrades in the square. Tahrir became once more the centre of a chaotic uprising, and also a kind of base-camp complete with field hospitals. The battle raged along Mohamad Mahmoud street, a main thoroughfare that leads from the square past the American University of Cairo toward the Ministry of the Interior. Apart from one afternoon charge by the military police, after the police had been evicted from the square and had one of their vehicles trashed, the assailants were police officers.

This changed at dusk on the second day when the army attacked from streets leading into the square, flanking the protesters and striking with extreme force, killing at least two people. I spoke to a veterinarian named Ahmed who was assisting at one of the field hospitals. He said four or five was a more realistic number, but admitted the chaotic nature of the scene made this hard to be certain.

The square was cleared once more, with protesters chased into surrounding streets. I ran into one group who had been chased across the bridge onto an island in the Nile. At least one protester sustained serious wounds from a rubber bullet fired at close range and was whisked away on the back of a motorbike for medical attention. After a further retreat across another bridge, and into the suburb of Dokki, the tide began to turn. Soon the soldiers had been repelled and the group began making their way, in dribs and drabs, back to Tahrir. By the time we got there the square was again filled with protesters.

The square, despite constant attempts by police to take it, has not been lost since. Hordes of young men have managed to keep the fight mostly in the enemy’s territory, with makeshift barricades, stones and Molotov cocktails facing off against teargas, guns and armored vehicles. The death toll is now estimated at somewhere around 30, and rising, with thousands injured and the makeshift triages set up in mosques around the square tending to a constant flow of fresh injuries.

Many of the participants have drawn parallels with the 18 days of the initial uprising in Cairo in January and February. This may prove to be a false comparison, as much of Cairo remains — for the moment — calm and unaffected by the current clashes. Solidarity protests are springing up in cities around the country including Alexandria, Suez, Mahalla and Assuit and they are facing similar harsh repression. And there’s talk of a general strike — much like the one which many argue prompted the generals to turn on Mubarak in the first place. This latest round of uprisings coud be just as explosive.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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