A fresh wave of protests swept Egypt on Saturday after clashes between police and protesters refusing to leave Tahrir Square left two dead and 676 injured as police violence escalated a few days before parliamentary elections.
The police’s decision to evacuate Tahrir Square early Saturday morning backfired, as their heavy-handed tactics against the small overnight protesters enraged activists and prompted tens of thousands to flock to the epicentre of January’s revolution to insist on their right to protest. Waves of the notorious Central Security Forces (CSF) were being rushed to the scene in ever greater numbers in attempts to disperse demonstrators.
The mass confrontations in Tahrir, which lasted until the early hours of Sunday with police firing rubber bullets and tear gas, left a 23-year-old activist dead. This heaped more pressure on the under-fire Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), which is failing to win over activists, furious at SCAF's mismanagement of the transitional period.
Another young man, Bahaa El-Snousy, was also killed in Alexandria in the early Sunday hours. El-Snousy has been identified as a founding member of the Alexandria chapter of the Egyptian Current Party, a revolutionary group with Islamist leanings and member of the Revolution Continues electoral coalition.
The famous chant “The people demand the overthrow of the regime,” which echoed acorss the nation during the 18-day uprising against the regime of ousted president Hosni Muibarak, burst onto the scene again. This time, Tahrir occupants demand the removal of SCAF, insisting on a swift handover over power to an elected administration.
SCAF has declined to set a definite date for presidential elections, saying these would be held once the new parliament finishes drafting a new constitution. That process, according to SCAF’s own timetable, could take up to 12 months. Most political forces and revolutionary youth movements want SCAF out by April 2012.
Protesters attempted to storm police headquarters in Alexandria, Suez and Mansoura while Tahrir protesters vowed to maintain their occupation of the square until their demands are met. These scenes were highly reminiscent of the January revolution, which ended Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule.
Ultras Ahlawy and Ultras White Knights, the zealous supporters of Egypt's two main football clubs, descended to Tahrir after sunset, apparently forcing police to withdraw to allow thousands of protests to reoccupy the square’s central island.
“We are in a very dangerous situation. We have to end the use of force, which was not justified,” presidential hopeful and former Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa said in a television interview.
“We should engage in dialogue. Dealing with peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations that way [violently] will only worsen the situation.”
Fellow presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei echoed Moussa’s sentiment, describing the excessive force used by the police as “barbaric.”
The clashes started when police decided to forcefully disperse a sit-in of hundreds who were injured during the January revolution. They had camped in Tahrir overnight following Friday’s tens of thousands-strong demonstrations.
SCAF member Mohsen El-Fangary leapt to the police’s defence, insisting that they had acted in accordance to a controversial law criminalising sit-ins.
“Why did some people stage a sit-in? What did they want? Those are not the people who were injured during the revolution. They were paid by agitators sent to occupy the square,” he said in an interview with El-Hayat TV, but declined to name specific alleged culprits.
“The police implemented the law that bans sit-ins. We should direct our attention to the upcoming parliamentary elections [scheduled to begin on 28 November], which we are determined to hold and secure.
“As for the presidential elections, if everything goes according to plan, we will have an elected president before the end of 2012. In the worst-case scenario, we will have a president early in 2013.”
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf called on protesters to leave Tahrir and to let traffic flow again on roads protesters had blocked, but his pleas fell on deaf ears as demonstrators poured into the square in the early hours of Sunday.
The interior ministry said it had imposed “the maximum” self-restraint but came under fierce attack after hundreds were injured, many seriously. Activists Malek Mostafa and Ahmed Abdel-Fattah, a photographer at El-Masry El-Youm newspaper, were seriously injured in the eye. Malek lost his eye.
Several journalists were arrested or beaten, including Ahram Online reporter Ahmed Feteha, who was brutally attacked by members of central security while dictating his report to Ahram Online's desk editor. His mobile phone, ID, money and wallet were seized, and were never returned.
“What happened today is just like 28 January. The same people who were present in the square during the revolution returned. All that needs to come to an end.” activist Shady El-Ghazaly Harb said.
“Mubarak’s regime did not fall. Mubarak’s regime is in full power,” he added.
The revolution's demands
The January 25 Youth Coalition, which has many members running in the upcoming parliamentary elections, said they would not leave Tahrir Square unless all their demands are met.
“Our demands are: to sack the government; set a clear timetable to hand power over to a civilian administration; punish those who were responsible for today’s incidents; reject Ali El-Selmi’s document [proposed supra-constitutional principles] and halt military trials for civilians,” it said in a statement.
“The group also decided to suspend its election activities until the aforementioned demands are fulfilled.”
Friday’s protests, which were mostly dominated by Islamist forces, including hard-liner Salafists, were mainly aimed at rejecting the supra-constitutional principles proposed by Deputy Prime Minister Ali El-Selmi.
The principles initially included two controversial articles that would have granted the Egyptian army exclusive powers over its budget and internal affairs, shielding it from parliamentary oversight.
The articles were later amended, with the new version stating that a National Defence Council would be responsible for setting the army’s budget and monitoring its affairs. The council would be headed by the president.