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Who pulled the first punch? Conflicting accounts of the Martyrs’ Day of Rage in Tahrir

Ahram Online recounts the conflicting stories of what transpired on 28 June, when the police violently clashed with protesters in Tahrir Square and the streets surrounding the ministry of interior

Ekram Ibrahim, Waleed Marzouk, Menna Taher, Mohamed Hebeishy, Wednesday 29 Jun 2011
Demonstrators
Demonstrators throw stones at the Egyptian security during clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: AP)
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While Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces released a communiqué describing yesterday’s events as “destabilising to the [country’s] safety and security” and as “organised and orchestrated” to “use the blood of the martyrs” to create tensions between Egypt’s security forces and the nation, accounts of what actually led to the violence that erupted in and around Tahrir Square and the ministry of interior remain conflicted.

Balloon Theatre

In a statement released yesterday, the ministry of interior stated that during the evening of 28 June an NGO was honouring the families of victims in the Balloon Theatre in the Agouza neighbourhood of Cairo when a “group of individuals” tried to barge into the theatre, claiming they were also families of martyrs.

Numerous eyewitnesses confirmed that several martyrs’ families made it to the theatre and were not only denied entry, they also discovered that those being honoured by the charity organisation El Waad El Amin were actually the police that died during the revolution. Those on the protesters’ side who died were excluded. They then headed towards police officers in an adjacent street to complain angrily.

The martyrs’ families, clearly furious, waited for the ceremony to end. As soon as the police officers started pouring out of the theatre, clashes erupted.

The ministry of interior claims that when the organisers of the event refused to let them enter members of the martyr’s families slammed the gate until its glass broke, adding that security forces managed to control the alleged vandals and detained seven of them.

Some eyewitness accounts claim that one person was shot dead and several injured, including an elder woman, who was slapped in the face by a police officer.

One eyewitness told Ahram Online that the assault on this woman was the pivotal inciting incident of the violence that would later erupt.

The other sons of this martyr’s mother, also present on the scene, began beating the officer in retaliation and eventually comprised most of those detained, according to the eyewitness.

After the first round of clashes, many of the martyrs’ families went to Tahrir Square to regroup.

From there they headed towards the ministry of interior to stage a demonstration, which many hoped would remain peaceful. The decision to advance towards the ministry was an attempt to free those wrongfully detained, according the eyewitness.

The  Balloon Theatre's assistant manager, Osama El-Sherbiny, says a group of young people (all under 50), came down from the adjacent 15 May Bridge, apparently led by someone, because they kept looking behind them for directions.

They attempted to break into the Balloon Theatre from the backdoor, according to El-Sherbiny, shouting "We don't want refrigerators, we want our rights." The theatre staff closed the door, so they attacked the front door and started throwing rocks inside. They then fended them off with water hoses and, along with members of the Reda folkloric dance troupe and some of the attendees, chased them down El Nil Street to the Shahrazad Hotel. The door of the theatre’s Salah Jaheen hall was left damaged.

El-Sherbiny confirmed that seven men and two women were detained by the police. He did not, however, witness thugs attacking the martyrs' families, as some claim to have occurred.

Although these accounts could not be verified, footage has surfaced on YouTube showing police officers physically assaulting unarmed protestors in front of the Balloon Theatre without any clear provocation.

Waleed Yassin, a clown and cyclist at the adjacent circus, says the police and the army came very late, after the clashes were over.

Egypt’s state TV headquarters, Maspero

Meanwhile, a demonstration was already in progress in front of the state television building, Maspero. Martyrs’ families had started a sit-in on Friday demanding the former Minister of Interior Habib El-Adli and other officials finally be tried on charges of killing their family members during the revolution.

Recent news that El-Adli’s trial had been postponed for another week had added new fuel to the protestors’ fire.

Homeless families from El-Salam and El-Nahda shantytowns were also present on the scene. They had been demonstrating in front of Maspero for the past three weeks because the government failed to fulfil its promise of granting them apartments.

The ministry of interior claims that the individuals they had termed “vandals” headed to Maspero after leaving the Balloon Theatre.

According to the ministry, there they were joined by more protesters and marched towards the ministry’s headquarters in downtown Cairo and began attacking stores and cars, injuring several citizens, passersby and policemen who worked in the area.

When the security forces tried to stop them, they headed to Tahrir Square and continued their thuggish acts there, the ministry added.

When Ahram Online arrived at Maspero on the morning of 29 June the protesting martyrs’ families were nowhere to be found. According to eyewitnesses, they were dispersed the night before first by a call from unidentified men to join a major protest elsewhere, and then forcibly by local policemen.

A group of boys smashed into Maspero shouting that everyone there should go to the Balloon Theatre because a crackdown there left several injured and one dead, an eyewitness told Ahram Online.

“The guys seemed wired; I think they might be paid thugs,” he said.

Around 8pm, says the eyewitness, a group of the martyrs’ families headed to the Balloon Theatre to see what was happening, with the rest staying put at Maspero.

At some point policemen began breaking up the martyrs’ families' sit-in. “I saw policemen in uniform dispersing the martyrs’ families’ sit-in,” another eyewitness told Ahram Online.

Notably, the police only kicked out the martyr’s families and not the homeless families from El-Salam and El-Nahda shantytowns.  

“They asked us to join them in Tahrir Square, but we refused,” Salah Mohamed, one of the El-Salam demonstrators told Ahram Online.

The homeless refused to leave their spot at Maspero, thinking that would be the best way for them to actually get a home.

The remaining martyrs’ families were forced to leave and headed to Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 25 January revolution. The protesters demanding homes later heard gunfire coming from Tahrir square.

In addition to the gunfire, they also saw several injured protestors arriving from the square.

“People in a Cherokee jeep driving in front of Maspero fired shots in the air,” an eyewitness told Ahram Online.

Many eyewitnesses on the scene agreed that the assaults on the demonstrators seemed planned, starting with the men who came to take the martyr’s families to the Balloon Theatre to the policemen who dispersed the sit-in to take the martyrs’ families to Tahrir Square where violence would later erupt.

Tahrir Square and the ministry of interior building

By midnight Tahrir Square had turned into a battlefield. Stones, tear gas, sticks, knives and improvised weapons were used by the police and hired thugs against anyone attempting to approach the ministry of interior.

All attempts by the police to disperse the crowds were met with retaliation, often violent, by the protestors.  

At 3am today, Minister of Interior Mansour El Eissawi ordered all security forces to withdraw from Tahrir Square and not to clash with citizens in any manner, announced the ministry.

Yet, from 3am to 6am, Ahram Online witnessed security officers repeatedly firing tear gas canisters at protesters while also shielding a group of young people brandishing swords who entered the square from Abdeen Street. 

 

Ahram Online encourages eyewitnesses to send in their personal accounts and comments here english@ahram.org.eg.

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Yehya
01-07-2011 12:10am
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The title of this article is incorrect
The article title should read "Who THREW the first punch?" "Pulling punches" refers to when a boxer or other fighter doesn't hit the opponent as hard as he can. I am relatively certain that this is not what you mean. You mean "Who struck first?" In that case, "threw," is correct usage, whereas "pulled" is not.
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bassem
30-06-2011 10:00am
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Who THREW!! the first punch.
Embarrassing, really. I already flagged this on twitter some 13 hours ago. You really should have it fixed by now.
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