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.”