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Defiant protesters remain in Tahrir despite violence

Despite the liberal use of seemingly toxic gas, protesters vow to remain in the square until military rule in Egypt is brought to an end

Yasmine Fathi , Wednesday 23 Nov 2011
Tahrir square
Tahrir square (Photo: Mai Shaheen)
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The sun rose on Tahrir Square after a night of deadly clashes in which protesters claim that security forces used rubber bullets, live ammunition and copious teargas in an effort to dislodge them. The wounded lay on the ground – strewn with stones and spent teargas canisters – many nursing serious injuries.

Tension in the square remains high as tens of thousands of protesters continue to chant against military rule. They are furious that security forces had again cracked down on them only hours after Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi’s address to the nation in which he expressed sorrow for the recent loss of life.

“Why is the army killing us? Why?” protesters chanted in unison.

Concerned parents walk up to a field hospital to look for their missing son, Yasser Hamdeen. The doctor looks at the roster of cases he’s treated and shakes his head as the sobbing mother moves on to continue her search.

Attacks by security forces, protesters say, have continued sporadically since the previous night. Meanwhile, clashes continue in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, where many of the recent clashes have taken place.

Protesters, many with swollen eyes red from teargas, continue to emerge from the volatile street seeking help from makeshift clinics set up in the square.

“Anyone who goes in there comes out with an injury,” said protester Haytham El-Sayed. “I was shot in the leg with a rubber bullet this morning while standing close by.”

Ahmed Fayez, a physician working in what has been dubbed the “Kentucky clinic” due to its proximity to the fast-food restaurant, continues to receive a steady flow of the wounded. Most of them, he says, suffer head injuries, while others are suffering the effects of teargas.

“The attacks come in waves, but never stop,” Fayez told Ahram Online. “We had about 500 cases last night, but only four doctors to treat them – the rest of the doctors also ended up being suffocated by teargas.”

Every time field doctors manage to find a treatment for the noxious agent, Fayez points out, security forces seem to introduce a new variety of gas.

Another doctor, working at the nearby “Hardees clinic” – the closest one to the front lines and therefore the busiest – said the clinic had received hundreds of injured since dawn.

“The attacks just don’t let up,” said physician Ahmed Mustafa. “Since dawn today, we’ve treated 110 cases.”

In one clinic set up by Salafist activists, a young man walks out holding a blood-soaked shirt, loudly sobbing “Allahu Akbar.” A volunteer at the clinic tells Ahram Online that the young man’s teenage brother had just been killed by a gunshot wound to the head.

Throughout the square, protesters hold up and examine spent ammunition from last night’s clashes, including bullet casings and empty teargas canisters.

Protester Adel Hammadi fashioned a necklace from the spent canisters of three different brands of teargas and bullet shells. He pointed out that some of the canisters appear to have an expiry date of 2008.

Then he holds up another can without any labels or markings on it. “These are the worst. We don’t know what it is, but we suspect that it’s nerve gas,” he says.

According to Mustafa, the mysterious gas can result in fits and convulsions.

Indeed, one man entered a nearby clinic and appeared to have a hysterical fit. He began screaming at everyone before getting down on one knee and kissing the feet of stunned onlookers.

“It’s the gas,” said a doctor who refused to identify himself. “It’s making people crazy.”

At about noon, Health Minister Amr Helmy visited the square, where he denied that security forces had used nerve gas against protesters. He also denied the use of expired teargas.

Many protesters also expressed fury at Tantawi’s promise to hand over power to an elected authority next summer and to hold a national referendum on whether or not Egypt’s armed forces should remain in power.

“This is a joke, right?” asked Ibrahim Kandeel, a young protester in Tahrir Square since Friday. “The army will administer the referendum, so we can guess what the results will be.”

Anger in the square isn’t only directed at the army, but also at many of the country’s political factions. Salafist protester Ali Awad believes political forces are surreptitiously working to aggravate divisions rather than foster political reconciliation.

“The gap between the Salafists and liberals isn’t that vast,” Awad said. “But the political leaders we have are so stupid that they don’t know how to unite us at all.”

Protester Ahmed Ali, who has been camped out in Tahrir for three days, said that most young activists now in the square no longer support any of Egypt’s post-revolution political forces.

“The political forces are the reason we’re in this mess in the first place,” Ali said. “They’re all working for their own interests and don’t care about the general welfare.”

He added: “They forget that it was the young people who brought Mubarak down, and it will be the young people who topple Tantawi as well.”

Osama Fawzy, another young protester, nodded in agreement.

“Last night was hell. We almost died from the teargas,” Fawzy recalled. “But God’s on our side, and we will be victorious.”

Meanwhile, additional protesters continue to pour into the square. Some come alone; others with friends carrying medical supplies, blankets or food; others still come in organised marches, including one for students and professors from Cairo University.

A number of high school students, too, have organised a march from Giza towards the iconic square to express their solidarity with the besieged protesters. And it is the young on whom the protest rests. "Many of the injured that we have treated so far have been under 20 years old," one volunteer doctor told Ahram Online.

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