Egyptian protesters defy military, return to Tahrir Square

April 9, 2011

Angry anti-government demonstrators returned to Tahrir Square late Saturday, some declaring that they were ready to face martyrdom, less than a day after Egypt’s military rulers used force to break up a protesters’ camp in the place where their revolution began.

Protesters again chanted slogans calling for the removal of the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, likening him to ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Others prayed or read from the Koran. Many appeared mindful of the council’s warning earlier in the day that troops would use force again, if necessary, to clear the square.

The bloody pre-dawn crackdown Saturday followed weeks of rising tensions between the pro-democracy movement and the military leadership that has run the country since Mubarak’s ouster in February.

At first, protesters welcomed the military’s intervention, seeing it as protection from the security apparatus and paid government thugs. But the euphoria quickly faded, and accusations mounted that the military was shielding Mubarak and doing his bidding.

The death toll from the raid on the protesters’ encampment remained in dispute late Saturday. Witnesses said that at least two people had been killed, while the Health Ministry said one person had died.

Hundreds of troops, firing into the air and attacking protesters with electric batons, swarmed the center of the square to expel several hundred people who had defied a 2 a.m. curfew after a large but peaceful protest Friday.

Among those who had joined the overnight protesters in the camp were about 20 uniformed soldiers who had broken ranks to demand that the military council move faster to try Mubarak and former members of his regime on corruption charges.

“They were participating to show their solidarity with the people,” said Hassad Mahmoud, 20, a student at Cairo University who took part in the sit-in.

Toward midnight, jubilant protesters in the camp lifted rebellious soldiers on their shoulders, shouting, “The army and the people form a single hand!” One of the soldiers raised a rolled-up body bag into the air, proclaiming that he was ready to die.

About 2:30 a.m., troops and security forces blocked entrances to the square. Protesters formed a human chain to protect the soldiers in their camp. Armored cars, troops and security officers swept in shortly after 3 a.m., and government forces fired their weapons into the air for about 20 minutes. Some protesters fled to a landmark mosque on the square for refuge. Others threw rocks at the troops.

Mahmoud and other witnesses said the troops appeared to be targeting the rebellious soldiers, injuring at least three and detaining others. Mahmoud said protesters hid some others.

As daylight returned to Tahrir Square, smoke drifted from three burning military vehicles. People started to return, climbing atop the charred hulks and demanding Tantawi’s removal.

The Friday rally was the largest since Mubarak’s government fell Feb. 11. Tens of thousands of people filled Tahrir Square in a peaceful demonstration to demand that Mubarak be held accountable on corruption allegations.

Others accused the military rulers of engaging in some of the same repressive behavior as Mubarak, such as detaining critics of the regime and trying them before military tribunals.

“I think the military council is in favor of Mubarak,” said Loftaya Mohamed, 58, a former teacher who attended the demonstrations with her adult daughter. “They’re being too kind and too patient.”

Mansour is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Haitham Tabei contributed to this report.

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