Egyptian demonstrators return to Tahrir Square hours after violent crackdown

Motivated by recent shows of political strength by neighbors in Egypt, demonstrators in the Middle East and North Africa are taking to the streets of many cities to rally for change.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 26, 2011; 10:04 PM

CAIRO - Protesters returned to Tahrir Square on Saturday just hours after security forces moved aggressively to disperse them, with some military police beating demonstrators and others using stun guns.

The crackdown, which took place Saturday just after midnight, marked one of the first times Egyptian military police had resorted to violence since the eruption of this country's crisis, sparking debate throughout Cairo about the military's intentions.

The clash highlighted ongoing tensions in Egypt as protesters press for further democratic reforms and the dismissal of the prime minister and cabinet members. Meanwhile, military leaders now in charge have urged protesters to stand down and allow the country to return to normal.

Since the revolution began, protesters have often chanted, "The people and the army are one," and even posed their children for pictures with soldiers and their tanks. But now that the army wants them to disperse and is willing to exercise force, the relationship has become murkier, many protesters said.

By Saturday morning, military leaders had issued a statement through their newly created Facebook page apologizing to protesters for the early morning crackdown, saying it was not authorized. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces also ordered the immediate release of all protesters detained during the previous night's violence.

A committee set up by the ruling military council also announced several proposed amendments to the constitution that would impose presidential term limits and get rid of some restrictions on who can run for president following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

But as Egyptians returned to the Tahrir Square on Saturday to resume their demonstration, many said they would no longer take the military at its word.

"There is no trust in the military in my mind. After what happened last night, you can tell they are not loyal to the people," said Saleh Gamal, 22, who was in the crowd when an organized line of military police moved into the square.

During most of Friday, the demonstration had been peaceful, even celebratory, as thousands marked the one-month anniversary of the protests. But shortly after midnight, military policemen suddenly appeared, their faces covered by masks, and began violently pushing protesters out of the square, saying they were imposing a curfew.

"All of a sudden the police came in wearing masks like socks. 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. . . . They were taking cameras from people. I saw people on the floor."

Gamal said he was stunned with a stun gun and temporarily paralyzed. Just one week earlier, he noted, the military had moved into the square and taken down people's tents in an attempt to make them leave, but they did not use force then.

"I don't know why they decided to hit us now," he said.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces 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."

As night fell Saturday, many in the crowd broke into debate.

"We must give the new government a chance," urged Hussain Mohamed, 25. "I believe the military meant what they said today. And the new administration should have a chance to prove themselves."

Mohamed and a few others like him, however, were shouted down by many in the crowd. One man yelled: "You cannot fix one thing like Mubarak and leave the other things unfixed."

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