Egypt: daily updates

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Egypt: daily updates

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Follow our rolling blog for coverage of protests in Egypt, from Rachel Aspden, Avi Asher-Schapiro and other correspondents in Cairo

Microbus democracy
Rachel Aspden

Microbuses are Cairo’s most democratic form of transport—the battered white Nissans or Volkswagens carry workers, students and street vendors through the city’s snarled traffic for LE1-2 (10-20p) a ride. This week, with most of Cairo voting in run-offs and the rest waiting to go to the polls next week, the conversation on their packed, wobbly bench seats is all of democracy.

Results from the first round of voting have been a triumph for Islamist parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party securing around 36 per cent of the vote and the hardline Salafi Nour party a surprising 24 per cent. The fragmented, poorly organised liberal parties that led the revolution have been largely routed. But there is little sympathy for them on the buses.

In Giza, the western district of Cairo that will vote on 14th and 15th December, a neatly bearded man of around 50 jumps on board at an intersection festooned with colourful campaign posters and long banners that flutter across six lanes of gridlocked vehicles.

“I don’t need to see these posters, I already know who I’m voting for,” he announces. In contrast to the loud chatter and disagreement on the seats around him, he is completely calm. “I’m voting for the Muslim Brotherhood. But I haven’t always been a supporter of theirs.”

“I’ll admit, I’m a felool,” he says, using the derogatory term for the “remnants” of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. “In the last two elections I voted for my cousin, who was a member of parliament in Mubarak’s party, the NDP. But at that time we were all working within the system, and we supported individuals, not parties—I knew my cousin was a good man, so I voted for him. Many, many people—perhaps most—are like me, though they won’t admit it now.”

“Since the revolution we’ve had no security. I had to go out on the street with the men from my neighbourhood to protect our houses. People began to buy guns to defend themselves—before the revolution you needed a license, but now anyone can buy them on a street corner. Prices start at LE1,000 (£100)—you can get machine-guns, anything.”

“Who can deal with this situation? The revolutionary youth? I don’t think so. They are a bunch of kids with no experience. They say they made the revolution and try to claim it belongs to them, but it wasn’t just them, it was everyone.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood have 80 years’ experience of working with the people. They may have to come in quite hard to deal with the security situation, which is Egyptians’ main concern, but I believe they’ll start to address all our economic and social problems after that. And if they don’t, we’ll get rid of them too in five years’ time.”

At the next intersection, he squeezes off the microbus and begins to walk down the side of the highway towards his work at the Marriott hotel, serving foreigners and wealthy tourists from the Gulf.

Near the end of the microbus’s route in central Cairo, Tahrir Square is still closed to traffic. It is increasingly dirty and hostile, with a bedraggled clump of tents housing the few remaining protesters surrounded by knots of aggressive young men. The protesters say the men guarding the barriers blocking vehicles from the square, one of Cairo’s main traffic hubs, are security service agents. “They want to keep Tahrir closed so more people become frustrated and turn against us liberals,” says one. With this week’s results set to be repeated in the next two rounds of voting, the gesture seems unnecessary.

A former member of the Muslim Brotherhood points to growing divisions inside the group
Piotr Zalewski

Over the past two days, with only a small crowd of protesters left in Tahrir Square, the scene of major rallies and clashes that left at least 42 dead and 3000 wounded the previous week, Egyptians have turned out in droves to vote in the country’s first free election in 60 years. Even though the full results of the three-tiered election will not be known until January, analysts predict that the country’s largest Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, will emerge as the biggest bloc in parliament. On Tuesday, a senior leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) declared that his group expected to receive at least 40 per cent of the vote.

In recent months, much has been made of whether the Brotherhood will tone down its Islamist agenda once in power. A related question is whether the pressures of governing, alone or in coalition with others, will allow it to survive intact.

The Brotherhood’s ongoing transformation from religious movement to political party has made for a bumpy ride. Some of those aboard have already headed for the exit door. In May of this year, one of the Brotherhood’s leading lights, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fatouh, left the group order to launch his campaign for Egypt’s presidency. Soon after, a number of young members split from the Brothers to found a new political outfit, the Egyptian Current Party. Last week, some of the Brotherhood bristled at their leaders’ decision to sit out the protests against the governing Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, once a prominent voice among the Brotherhood’s youth wing, parted ways with the group three years ago. To those familiar with the Brothers’ history, Houdaiby’s name should ring bells. His great grandfather was the Brotherhood’s second supreme guide; his grandfather was the sixth. On Monday night, after queuing for several hours at a polling station in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, to cast his vote, Houdaiby spoke to me about the Brotherhood’s future.

While none of the recent splits have precipitated any mass defections, serious trouble may yet be in store for the Brothers. Although he claimed to know of specific divisions within the group, which are deliberately being postponed till after the elections, Houdaiby said he was not in a position to give details. He did volunteer a few hints, however. “The number one battle to come is the battle to [completely] push the SCAF out of the political scene,” he said. “This battle different includes different tactics. It includes the parliament, but it also includes forming alliances with the revolutionary forces in the street.” Trying to formulate a stance on these particular issues, he said, “will cause major divides over the next few months.”

Once in power, the Brotherhood will have to tread carefully, Houdaiby explained. The group, he said, will have the Salafis on its right side and the liberal parties on its left. “Neither of these is a threat in and of itself. It is their combination that is a threat.” The Brotherhood “will need to distinguish itself from the Salafis on the one hand, but to maintain an Islamic constituency on the other.”

Report from the polling stations: “I’m so happy and proud for us Egyptians”
Rachel Aspden

Observers predicted a chaotic and bloody outcome to the first round of Egypt’s first free elections. But polling in Cairo, Alexandria and seven more of Egypt’s 27 governorates was surprisingly smooth. In the crowded, working-class streets of Nasreyya in central Cairo, voters queued patiently outside a girls’ school, skirting pools of muddy water from the recent torrential rains. Security presence was minimal and the mood was upbeat.

Despite a nominal ban on campaigning on election day, activists from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party surrounded the queue, chatting to voters and distributing leaflets. They were keen to assert their moderate credentials. “It’s not about religion,” said one. “People are just seeking a good, transparent government that can implement economic reform. We could even enter an alliance with Christians, whoever is willing to work with us.”

The streets were littered with campaign materials from all parties, but relatively few other infractions were reported. Liberal activists reported instances of late opening, vote buying and unstamped ballot papers, but on a far smaller scale than during the rigged Mubarak-era elections of 2005 and 2010. The main difficulty for voters was the sudden proliferation of unfamiliar candidates and parties. “There were 122 candidates on my ballot paper,” said 24-year-old Mahmoud Rizq, who voted in the wealthy suburb of Nasr City. “I had to spend hours researching them before I had any idea who they were or what they stood for.”

The military council’s last minute extension of the voting period to two days, 28th and 29th November, helped to ease congestion that could have led to violence, although many voters reported standing in line for four or more hours—a reflection of new commitment after the low turnout of the Mubarak years. State officials claimed turnout in Cairo neared 80 per cent.

“After seeing how smoothly things have gone in Cairo, I can’t wait to vote in Giza on 14th December,” said Ahmed, whose governorate will vote in the next round. “I’m so happy and proud of us Egyptians.”

Not everyone agreed with his optimistic appraisal. As polling stations closed on the evening of 29th November, violence flared in and around Tahrir Square as liberal protesters clashed with gangs composed either of plainclothes regime thugs or criminals.

“The revolution was a great excuse to bring chaos to this country,” said Ashraf, a Christian from Bulaq, looking down from a flyover on the crowds throwing stones and Molotov cocktails below. “I refuse to vote in these elections—they’re totally corrupt and people are deluded if they think they will bring us any change.”


Across Cairo, the mood darkens
Rachel Aspden

Over 100,000 protesters prostrated in unison on thin plastic prayer mats as Tahrir Square observed the Friday congregational prayer. It was a powerful demonstration of unity from a diverse crowd that agreed on one thing: Egypt’s military council, Scaf, must step down.

“No stages, no political campaigning, no microphones. One voice, one fight,” read a giant banner proclaiming the “rules of Tahrir” that fluttered above the ranks of worshippers.

The rules were largely observed. The liberal presidential candidate, Mohamed ElBaradei, who many protesters support to head a council of elders proposed to replace the military council, appeared briefly following the prayers. But the generals did not endorse Tahrir’s choice.

Later in the evening, crowds in the square united again in their rejection of the military council’s appointment of Kamal al-Ganzouri as head of a national salvation government. Al-Ganzouri, a former prime minister of the Mubarak era, is 78 and has strong ties with the head of Scaf, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who served in the same cabinet in 1991. “This is more of the same,” said the well-known liberal publisher and activist Mohammed Hesham. “Scaf is taunting us by even suggesting, after everything that’s happened, that we’d accept someone so complicit with the former regime.”

In a rowdy expression of protesters’ dissatisfaction with al-Ganzouri, Ultras—hardcore football fans who were at the forefront of the past week’s fighting with security forces—led processions around the square, set off fireworks and hoisted former Egypt goalkeeper Nader el-Sayyed onto their shoulders to lead anti-regime chants.

But the political consensus was undermined by disturbing changes in the square. With the end of fighting in Mohamed Mahmoud street, scene of the most violent clashes, a current of aggression has spread throughout Tahrir. The atmosphere veered between festive—food and souvenir vendors, banners and tents have proliferated over the last two days—and hostile.

Paranoia and xenophobia has spread through the crowds, fed by state television’s talk of “foreign hands,” “spies” and “hidden agendas.” “Are you Israeli? Are you American? Why are you here?” demanded groups of angry youths. “Do you have a contact for the CIA?” they asked my companion. Several foreign journalists have been beaten up, and have had their equipment smashed or stolen.

On Thursday, Scaf issued a communique warning against agents attempting to sow chaos and encouraging Egyptians to perform citizen’s arrests on “any suspicious individual.” Outbreaks of vigilantism spread even among the Tahrir protesters. At 9pm on Friday an Egyptian woman was dragged through the crowds by her hair by a group of men trying to cover her in a blanket. “She said she was a doctor and tried to get into the field hospital, but she’s a felool [regime supporter] trying to infiltrate us,” shouted one.

Equally damaging to the protesters was the widespread sexual harassment and assault of women in and around the square. Some claimed sexual violence was being used systematically by the baltageyya –thugs in the pay of the regime who have terrorised protesters since the initial uprisings in January—to spread fear and reduce numbers in the square. “They want to scare us into staying at home, and some women have left. But we are strong, we won’t be defeated like that,” said Nisreen, a 20-year-old student protester.

Reporters without Borders has called on international news outlets to stop sending female reporters to cover the Cairo protests, and the local organisation HarassMap (@harassmap) collected tweets from hundreds of protesters who had suffered attacks.

Outside the square, divisions have also festered. A march from the west bank of the Nile to Tahrir in support of the protesters was countered by a pro-Scaf march in Abbasiya, north Cairo, that drew around 20,000 who claimed to represent the “silent majority.” “Egypt is a state, not a square,” they chanted, along with “the people and the army are one hand”—a slogan from the February uprisings now rejected by the Tahrir protesters, who prefer to chant “the people and the people are one hand.”

Despite the opposition of many Tahrir protesters, Scaf also announced that parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned. They will now take place over two days, 28th and 29th November, instead of one—a move that may defuse some potential for violence, as the original restricted hours would have left many unable to access polling stations. Whether Egyptians beyond Tahrir will be swayed by the last week’s developments when voting remains to be seen.


Egyptian army: “We will not relinquish power because a slogan-chanting crowd said so”
Avi Asher-Schapiro

All is quiet on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, the epicentre of the last week’s clashes between Egyptian police and protestors calling for the end of military rule. Beginning early Thursday morning, military personnel secured the area as protestors retreated to Tahrir Square.

Protestors looked on while military cranes erected a barricade on the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and cordoned off the Ministry of Interior with barbed wire. After nearly five days of anti-military protests, which left almost 40 dead, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is still very much in charge.

Although the SCAF sacked the civilian cabinet and expressed their regret for the week’s violence, they have refused to meet any of the protestors’ major demands.

At a press conference on Thursday, General Mamdouh Shaheen rebuked them. “We will not relinquish power because a slogan-chanting crowd said so,” Shaheen said.

The military placed the blame for the recent violence at the feet of the civilian cabinet and tasked Mubarak-era PM Kamal Ganzouri with forming a new government.  This did little to appease the protestors remaining in Tahrir.

“We didn’t come to Tahrir to replace the cabinet,” Mahmoud, a 22-year-old activist tells me. “We came here to demand the military step aside.”

Protestors have vowed to stay in the square even as Egyptians head to the polls this Monday for their first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections.  Although the SCAF has pledged that elections will go on as planned, there is widespread uncertainty about whether the incoming civilian government will be able to wrest control from an increasingly authoritarian military.

Meanwhile the last week’s violence has provoked a strong reaction from human rights advocates. On Tuesday, Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the SCAF had “failed completely” during the transitional period and Amnesty International released a blistering report detailing the SCAF’s increasingly authoritarian bent.

The week’s protests have divided Egypt’s political parties. While many liberals and leftists believe that ongoing protests are necessary to keep up pressure on the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies have refused to endorse the sit-in.  But among the protestors in Tahrir Square, there is no doubt that the military can no longer be trusted.

“I want a government that will have full power to achieve the revolution goals, including putting the army generals in jail,” wrote influential leftist blogger, Hossam El Hamalawy late on Thursday  night.  The military, however, still retains a strong base of support among many Egyptians and a well-organised pro-military march is expected on Friday.

Many have drawn comparisons between last week’s events and the period of mass demonstrations that forced Mubarak from power last spring, but the current wave of protests have, so far, failed to deliver meaningful results. Although hundreds of thousands marched in the square over the past days, it seems that for now the demonstrations have done little to dislodge the military’s political dominance.

Tahrir Square vs the silent majority
Rachel Aspden

On the fifth day of protests in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi addressed the nation with the offer of concessions including a referendum on the immediate transfer of power to a civilian government, and the election of a president by July 2012.

His pre-recorded address also angrily defended the army’s record during the transitional period and said they had been “patient” in the face of “insults.”

His words had little effect on the hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Tahrir Square, who responded with enraged chants of “Leave, leave.” An effigy of Tantawi in military uniform dangled from a lamppost on the square.

Activists’ calls for a “million-man march” on Tahrir Square had been effective, with crowds growing throughout the day. As the death toll rose to 36 after fierce fighting in the side-streets, protestors carried the coffin of one man they said had been killed in clashes over the weekend.

In mid-afternoon an army officer was hoisted onto the crowd’s shoulders as thousands roared in delight. Electrified by the prospect of the army turning against its leaders, the entire square united in chants of “the people want the fall of the field marshal.” The officer, Ahmed Shuman, who also called for Mubarak and Tantawi (then defence minister) to step down in February, told al-Jazeera Live that “most of the army are against what is happening now.” Some believed his return to Tahrir was a sign that a second triumph was close at hand.

After the initial euphoria of Shuman’s appearance, however, it was unclear whether the crowds believed him. Trust in the military has been eroded—even destroyed—in the months since they took power from Mubarak in February. “We won’t listen to anything anyone from the army says while we see this happening,” said one protestor, gesturing towards the orange ambulances ferrying the dead and injured out of the fiercest fighting in Mohamed Mahmoud street.

Tantawi’s words were undercut by escalating violence from security forces positioned near Tahrir Square. In Midan Falaki, east of the square, protestors gathered in dense tear gas to push towards the military’s position in front of the interior ministry. Swept up in the adrenaline of the moment, young men raced scooters through the crowds towards the front line, shouting. Masked protestors on the street cheered them on.

But gathered nearby were equal numbers of street children selling tissues and bystanders reluctant to join the protestors in the square, let alone those on the frontlines. “I don’t agree with these demonstrations at all,” said 30-year-old software engineer Mohammed Rasmy. “The economy is in crisis, tourism is suffering—how do these people think we can live without stability?”

Despite the failings of Scaf, the military council, Rasmy and other pragmatists argue that they are the only ones who can hold the country together. “If the army goes, who else can we turn to? None of these candidates or parties have any experience of governing,” said Ayman Wahba, who owns a nearby printing business. “That would be a disaster for us businessmen.”

The idealism of protestors who are unwilling to compromise on a just basis for Egypt’s future is intoxicating. But it has yet to affect the majority of the country’s 81 million people.

Tantawi’s speech was certainly not enough to pacify protestors in Tahrir and other flashpoints including Alexandria, Suez and the delta city of Mansoura. Whether their priorities will outweigh those of the silent majority remains uncertain.

Egypt: “something new will be born from this”
Rachel Aspden

While Scaf, Egypt’s ruling military council, debated whether to accept the resignation of the Egyptian cabinet, intense fighting continued between protesters and security forces off Tahrir Square.

At the front line on Mohamed Mahmoud street, where an army cordon protects the interior ministry building, crowds jostled in a thick fog of tear gas. A steady stream of protesters carrying crates of rocks and bottles, heads swathed in scarves, goggles and gas masks, shoved their way to the front while others retreated, injured or exhausted.

With their faces streaked white with the diluted antacid now used against the gas, 19-year-old Mahmoud and his friend took shelter behind a wall. “They are shooting us with live ammunition in there—I saw people get shot beside me,” he said. “But we are going straight back in. This time we have to finish what we started in January.”

Just behind them, Tahrir was thronged with protesters determined to topple the country’s military rulers. To chants of “Down with military government,” vendors sold keffiyeh scarves, goggles, surgical-, dust- and rudimentary gas-masks. Men roamed the crowds with spray bottles filled with water and vinegar or antacid solution, ready to treat those hit by the periodic waves of gas billowing from the security forces’ position to the east.

Despite the celebratory atmosphere in the square itself, there was growing anger at the west. “Americans out—you are sending this gas to kill us,” shouted one masked man, holding a canister marked with a blue “Made in USA” stamp. The canisters are manufactured by Pennsylvania-based Combined Systems Inc (CSI).

While support for Islamist parties in the country as a whole remains strong, anti-Islamist sentiment among those in Tahrir was also growing. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, which is expected to perform strongly in forthcoming elections, issued a statement that: “Out of our commitment not to lure people to more bloody confrontations, we… declare that we will not participate in any protests or demonstrations that may lead to more confrontations and tensions.”

The Brotherhood has been heavily criticised for its failure to participate in the protests that snowballed after Friday’s Brotherhood- and Salafi-dominated demonstration in Tahrir Square. “The Brotherhood has left us to die in the streets, and we won’t forget that,” said one protester fighting on Mohamed Mahmoud street. On Monday the Freedom and Justice party leader Mohamed el-Beltagy was forced from the square by crowds angry at the Brotherhood’s failure to act.

The popular heroes of this round of protests are not political leaders, but those who have been killed or injured on the front line. Five minutes from the square, one of Qasr el Nil bridge’s huge stone lions—a symbol of Egypt’s 1952 revolution—had one eye covered by a gauze eyepatch in tribute to the protesters who have lost their sight in the last three days. The best-known is activist Ahmed Harara, who lost one eye in protests against Mubarak on 28th January, and then the other on 19 November. “I would rather be blind, but live with dignity and my head held up high,” he is quoted as saying on activists’ Facebook pages.

Doctors in the makeshift field hospitals around Tahrir confirmed that most wounds were to protesters’ upper bodies and heads. “They are aiming high, at people’s heads,” said one. Field hospitals—some no more than blankets laid down behind a thin tape cordon—have also been targeted with tear gas. The death toll has risen to at least 33, with over 1,800 injured.

The violence has served only to inflame public opinion. “Scaf has made the same mistake Mubarak made on 2nd February with the ‘Battle of the Camel’,” said Big Pharaoh, the prominent anonymous blogger and Twitter activist, referring to the day the former regime sent thugs on horses and camels to attack protesters in Tahrir Square. “Up to that point, some people were willing to accept his compromises—but after they saw such cruelty he had to go. It’s the same now.”

Since Friday, there have been no party political stages or platforms in the square and many protesters see the elections scheduled to begin on Monday as an irrelevance. Chants in the square were direct: “No to Scaf, no to the elections.” The consensus in the square was not only that Field Marshal Tantawi, Egypt’s de facto military leader, must step down, but that Scaf itself must make way for a national salvation government, possibly led by presidential candidate and former head of the IAEA,Mohammed ElBaradei.

Although protesters disagree on who should take charge, there is a clear sense that this is the end of the line for the generals. Turkish president Abdullah Gul issued a statement warning Scaf not to cling on to power for too long. “Based on our own experience, the job of the military is not to govern a country,” he said. “If they do that, the masses will turn against them.”

This afternoon’s march may hasten that turning point. “This is the most profound moment since we pushed Mubarak out,” said Big Pharaoh. “Something new will be born from this.”

Egypt’s crisis deepens
Avi Asher-Schapiro

At 2am, early Tuesday morning, just half a block from the Egyptian Ministry of Interior, crowds start fires and chant slogans against the ruling military junta. Down the street, men from the nearby Abdeen district stand in front of their homes with sticks, knives, and guns, ready to defend the neighborhood.

The night is punctuated by shouting and gunfire. It’s been nearly three hours since the entire civilian Egyptian cabinet submitted letters of resignation to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and downtown Cairo is still gripped by chaos.

The protests have been raging since Friday, when peaceful demonstrations against the increasingly authoritarian military devolved into violent clashes. Images of military police beating protesters and dragging dead bodies sparked widespread outrage. Coming just a week before planned parliamentary elections, the ongoing violence has cast a long shadow over Egypt’s political future.

Many political parties have agreed to suspend their parliamentary campaigns temporarily, but rifts are already beginning to emerge between Egypt’s more established political parties and the youth movements that spearheaded the protests.

Many of the established political groups, which are expected to do well in next week’s poll, are not eager to see the crisis deepen and disrupt the voting. The 83-year-old Muslim Brotherhood and the 93-year-old liberal Wafd Party, both issued measured statements, which balanced criticism of the army with calls for stability.

An official for the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing told me that, for the Brotherhood, “elections are still a top priority.” The Brotherhood, which is expected to win a plurality in next week’s elections, also called upon its members to refrain from further demonstrations.

The April 6th Movement, a coalition of youth activists who were crucial in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last spring, are advocating a prolonged sit-in. Moving quickly to capitalise on recent mass mobilisation, the Movement has called for amillion-man march Tuesday. They are being joined by other youth coalitions and left-wing parties, including the Union of Maspiro Youth.

It seems that even in the face of a three-day police crackdown, which has left dozens dead, Egypt’s political factions are still unable to unite to bring an end to military rule. Political parties poised to do well in elections are unwilling to join the protests, while activist groups with little to gain in the upcoming poll see continued mass mobilization as their most powerful tool.

As the military continues to mismanage the crisis, nearly all political currents agree on one thing: the military is inept. As Evan Hill reports in Al Jazeera, the military—which receives $1.3bn in US funding each year—still inexplicably relies upon 50-year-old communications technology to coordinate crowd control.

As a result, hundred of Egyptians have been wounded and dozens killed in the last 72 hours.

As of sunrise Tuesday morning, demonstrators continue to die on the streets of downtown as protestors and police dig in. Faced with a political and humanitarian crisis, some are suggesting a national “Salvation government” which would take over from the military immediately. Although the notion may have a broad base of political support, there are many unanswered questions and so far the idea seems to be more of a fantasy than a real solution.

Back to Tahrir Square
Rachel Aspden

As dusk fell tonight, Tahrir Square was packed with thousands of protestors demanding the fall of Egypt’s military government. On the third consecutive day of protests and after 36 hours of clashes with the security forces, there was a lull. Sweet potato, corncob and candy-floss vendors mingled with the crowds.

At twilight, ranks of police and soldiers attacked. The hollow thump of tear-gas canisters echoed from the streets to the south and east. Panic spread among the crowd and thousands took to their heels screaming “the army.”

A teenage girl ran up beside me, limping badly. She had lost a shoe, and her bare foot and her head were covered in blood. “We’ve run from Mohamed Mahmoud street, the army beat us with sticks,” she shouted. Thick plumes of tear gas rose over the running crowd and people began to choke, some vomiting from the stinging smoke. After ten minutes, the square had been cleared of protestors.

In contrast to Friday’s demonstration against proposed “supra-constitutional principles,” which was dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi groups, the crowd in and around Tahrir today was heavy with the middle-class youth who led the first protests against Mubarak in January. “We’ve come back to finish what we started then,” said Ashraf, a 20-year-old student. “The SCAF [military council] must realise this is the end of the game, this time they will have to kill us to get us out.”

In the run-up to elections scheduled to begin next Monday, tolerance for the military rulers’ disastrous handling of the transitional period has run out. For two days protestors have defied the SCAF to occupy Tahrir square, fleeing from and pursuing security forces in a cat-and-mouse game played out in the square and the surrounding streets and alleyways. The area is strewn with jagged paving stones broken up for missiles, broken glass and makeshift barricades. Police and army have used a mixture of tear gas, baton rounds, birdshot and batons and, reports suggest, live ammunition.

After an hour, security forces pulled back from Tahrir and the crowd, which had retreated to the side-streets, surged back in. Chants began again: ”The people want the fall of the field marshal”—Egypt’s de facto leader Field Marshal Tantawi, and ”The army and the police are a dirty hand”—a play on a favourite chant of the original uprising against Mubarak, “The army and the people are one hand.”

But the evening’s battles had a heavy price. A middle-aged woman rushed towards the square, tears running down her face. “Where is the field hospital?” she screamed at protestors. “My son is there.” After security forces’ retreat from Tahrir this afternoon, photographs emerged of dead or unconscious protestors piled at the side of the square. At least four people are confirmed dead and 800 injured, some seriously, in today’s protests. With tensions continuing to build ahead of the elections, those numbers are likely to rise.

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