CAIRO — Egypt’s military used force early Saturday to break up a camp of protesters in Tahrir Square, as tensions continued to build between the pro-democracy movement and the military leadership that has run the country since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February.
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 following a massive but peaceful protest Friday. The overnight protesters had set fire to cars and barricaded their encampment with barbed wire.
Among those who had joined the overnight protesters in the tent camp were a dozen or more uniformed soldiers who had broken ranks to demand that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces move faster to try Mubarak and members of his regime on corruption charges.
As armored cars and troops swept in shortly after 3 a.m., the protesters, most of whom were young, initially tried to form a human chain to protect the rebellious soldiers in their camp. They scattered when the troops began firing their weapons into the air.
Several eyewitnesses said the rebellious soldiers were taken away.
The Reuters news service, citing hospital sources, said two people had been killed and 15 others injured by gunfire. Witnesses said an unknown number of people had been shot near a mosque where protesters sought refuge, but their accounts could not be immediately confirmed.
As daylight returned to Tahrir Square, smoke billowed from three burning military vehicles, included troop carriers, while a tense standoff prevailed between soldiers and demonstrators in the streets surrounding the Square. Broken glass littered the square.
By mid-afternoon, many more people had gathered at the square, climbing atop the blackened hulks of the military vehicles.
The military issued a statement condemning “outlaws” for the rioting and violating the country’s 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. curfew but said no one had been harmed or arrested, the Associated Press reported.
“The armed forces stress that they will not tolerate any acts of rioting or any act that harms the interest of the country and the people,” the statement said.
Friday’s protest rally, dubbed the Day of Purification, was the largest since Mubarak’s government fell Feb. 11. Tens of thousands of people mobbed Tahrir Square after midday prayers on the Muslim day of rest to demand that Mubarak be held accountable for alleged corruption.
“I think the military council is in favor of Mubarak,” said Loftay Mohamed, 58, a former teacher who attended the demonstrations with her adult daughter. “They’re being too kind and too patient.”
Others criticized the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for engaging in some of the same repressive behavior as Mubarak, such as detaining critics of the regime and trying them before military tribunals. During Friday’s protests, some demonstrators called for the removal of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, 75, who heads the council.