Egyptian military police use violence to break up anniversary protest in Tahrir Square

February 25, 2011

A demonstration to celebrate the one-month anniversary of the Egyptian uprising turned violent early Saturday as authorities beat, arrested and tasered protesters, forcing them out of Tahrir Square.

With their faces covered by masks, authorities began pushing protesters out of the square at midnight, saying they were imposing a curfew. They beat protesters with sticks and fired shots in the air.

The clash highlighted ongoing tensions in Egypt as some protesters press demands for democratic reforms and the dismissal of the prime minister and cabinet members from the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. At the same time, military leaders now in charge have urged protesters to go home and allow the country to return to normal.

By Saturday morning, military leaders issued a statement through their newly created Facebook page apologizing to protesters for the late-night crackdown by military police and saying it was not authorized. The Supreme Council of Armed Forced also issued a decision for the immediate release of all protesters detained during the violence.

The protest began on Friday with a mood of celebration and reflection. Tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in the square where their unexpected journey originated, taking stock of what they have accomplished and affirming what they want next.

Banners, chants and conversations made clear that the crowds in Tahrir Square were of a single mind: Freedom has been won but not yet guaranteed. The generals ruling the country remain trusted, but they must replace the prime minister and his cabinet, lift a long-standing emergency law and put the Interior Ministry police under civilian control.

More than anything, the demonstrators seemed proud. Not only had they deposed Hosni Mubarak, their president of 30 years, but the example they provided, along with that of Tunisia, also has inspired their neighbors to pursue their own quests for freedom.

On Friday, that call resounded across the region, in some places at high cost. A “Day of Rage” in Iraq sent tens of thousands rallying nationwide for government reform and an end to corruption. At least 23 people were killed.

In Yemen, rent by recent deadly protests, tens of thousands of people gathered peacefully in the southern city of Taiz to demand that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down.

Many had come from outside Taiz, suggesting that the clamor for Saleh’s resignation might be widening.

In the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, anti-government demonstrators and Saleh supporters staged rival rallies under heavy security. Saleh had instructed security forces to protect demonstrators and prevent clashes, after the deaths of at least 19 people nationwide over the past nine days.

The dead include two activists killed Friday in clashes between protesters and security forces in the restive southern city of Aden, where more than 10,000 people took to the streets, according to Reuters.

Seven people have died since Feb. 14 in the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, home to the U.S. 5th Fleet. On Friday, authorities allowed tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators to converge unimpeded on the capital’s Pearl Square, now a raucous encampment. Some Bahrainis seek a greater voice in their government, but elements of the majority Shiite population want the Sunni king and rulers to go.

Bahrain’s foreign minister, Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, sounded a conciliatory note in an interview, describing protesters’ grievances as “legitimate.” But he said the longer it takes for negotiations to start, the more he worries. “There are hardheaded people on both sides that could do something,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Amman, to Egypt’s east, about 6,000 Jordanians pressed their king for political and economic reforms. Organizers said that the turnout — the largest yet — was a response to an attack on protesters last week by government supporters in which eight people were injured.

But it was the plight of Egypt’s Libyan neighbors that resonated most deeply among the demonstrators in Cairo. Scores of young men carrying — or wearing — Egyptian flags coursed through the crowd chanting, “With our blood and with our hearts we are united.” Others bore a 40-foot-long banner proclaiming “Libya and Egypt are one.”One man held a sign: “Gaddafi is a serial killer.”

Describing their Jan. 25 revolution as unfinished, they appeared to have come to Tahrir Square to communicate their intent to see it through on their terms. From morning until well into the night, the protest was peaceful, but after midnight the military began ordering demonstrators to leave, resulting in violent scuffles.

“All of a sudden the police came in wearing masks. You couldn’t see anything except for eyes,” said Dina Abouelsoud, 35, adding that she was beaten but escaped arrest. “They did not talk or anything. They just started grabbing people and throwing them backward. ... There were gunshots fired into the air. They were taking cameras from people. I saw people on the floor.”

From midnight to around 3 a.m., authorities clashed with protesters, eventually forcing them out of Tahrir Square and into another nearby square. But by 6 a.m., the demonstrators regrouped and were heading back into Tahrir.

The Supreme Council of Armed Forced issued a statement through the state news agency Mena, saying, “What happened yesterday during the demonstrations is an unintentional result of friction between military police and the sons of the revolution and that there has not been and will not be any orders given to violate the sons of this great people and that all necessary precautions will be taken to ensure that this does not happen again in the future.”

Earlier on Friday, before things grew violent, protesters explained what they were trying to accomplish. “This is a revolution of the people, not the army,” said George Ishaq, a founder of the 2005-era Kifaya protest movement. “We trust the army, but we have our demands.”

Gray-haired and distinguished in bearing, Ishaq drew an admiring entourage eager to hear his thoughts as he walked among the people.

He drew nods of agreement as he called for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to replace itself with a triumvirate of a judge, civilian and general until elections can be held. And those new rulers should dismiss the prime minister and cabinet, mostly appointed by the old regime, and replace them with seasoned managers, he said.

“Right now, we’re in intensive care,” Ishaq said, “and we need excellent people to get us out.”

The military rulers, led by 76-year-old Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, stepped into the void left by Mubarak’s Feb. 11 departure displaying neither familiarity with nor affinity for the political arts.

Their preferred medium is the communique, with Communique No. 1, issued Feb. 10, read by a stone-faced officer who assured the nation that the army would “support the legitimate demands of the people.”

Gradually, the generals have come to realize that the medium is the message. On Friday, they issued Communique No. 19 — “The Egyptian ruling military Council pledged its continued efforts related to the return of Egyptian nationals from Libya” — on their Facebook page.

The page — whose design nods to the Egyptian flag, with its official eagle and black background with red or white writing — has the dissonance of hieroglyphics tapped out on a BlackBerry. Such as Communique No. 17: “The council calls upon the great people to cooperate and collaborate with the armed forces on these many duties and in these historic times so that our efforts are not deviated in a manner affecting our local and national security.”

But who’s going to argue with 6,617 likes and 8,193 comments?

Last weekend, Tantawi appeared on a talk show on a privately owned television channel, speaking directly to young people in the studio with him. The younger generation loved it, declaring themselves reassured about the army’s intentions.

“Now we want podcasts of their meetings,” said Noha Wigah, a young activist.

Protest has been woven into the fabric of daily life remarkably quickly for a country where informants once lurked at every elbow.Now, the frequently gathering crowds have become a favored market for street vendors — the young ones striding along the crazy-quilt lanes with triangular fig-filled pastries on their heads, the old and lame offering pocket-size packets of tissues.

When arsonists set fire to an Interior Ministry building Wednesday, three sellers of roasted sweet potatoes were on the scene almost before the flames had died out.

“When I hear of a demonstration, I rush there,” said Hassan Salah, 19. He was pushing his cart through the square Friday, baking sweet potatoes in a makeshift roaster with a wood fire underneath.

Friday’s demonstration had a joyful and entrepreneurial air, with face-painters emblazoning the Egyptian flag on takers young and old, carts with fresh popcorn, and women offering hard-boiled eggs and koshary, the national dish of lentils, rice and pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce. Even Twinkies could be had.

But beneath the festive atmosphere lay a deep sense of purpose.

“We have to trust the army,” said Shaden Abdel Hak, a 43-year-old woman who runs a furniture and decorating business. “If we start doubting them now, we’re lost.

“But I want the government out,” she added, crushing a cigarette butt underfoot, “and I want them out now.”

lallyk@washpost.com

Correspondents Michael Birnbaum in Manama, Bahrain, and Sudarsan Raghavan in Taiz, Yemen, contributed to this report.

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