Political groups held a press conference on Tuesday to allow eyewitnesses and rights lawyers to give testimony on the military’s recent crackdown on a sit-in staged in front of the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo since 25 November to demand an end to military rule in Egypt.
The press conference came only one day after an earlier press conference held by Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). At that conference, military council member Adel Emara stated that soldiers had not opened fire on protesters. Emara also praised the army's "restraint" in dealing with the demonstration, displaying video footage to journalists “proving” that protesters had initiated the violence.
Although Tuesday’s press conference was organised in less than 24 hours, journalists and television crews were there in abundance.
A video was shown of testimony given by April 6 member Ghada Kamal, who recounted how she had been detained and severely beaten by army personnel inside the parliament building during the army's forcible dispersal of the Cabinet sit-in on 16 December.
Following the video, a member of the Coalition of the Lotus Revolution, one of the conference organisers, read out a press statement strongly condemning army violations against protesters, the use of violence against women and journalists, and “the purchase of torture weapons with taxpayer's money." It also demanded an end to military rule.
The statement was signed by 29 different political groups, including the National Front for Justice and Democracy; the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth; youth groups from Suez, Luxor, Aswan, Assiut and Qena; the Socialist Popular Alliance; the Maspero Youth Coalition; the Egyptian Social Democratic Party; the Socialist Workers Party; and the Revolutionary Socialists.
Next to speak was rights lawyer and director of the Cairo-based Arab Network for Human Rights Information Gamal Eid, who announced that three men who appeared in a video shown during the SCAF's press conference as paid thugs had been arrested in a case that has no relation to the protests. According to Eid, the three men – believed to be brothers – had already been detained pending investigation at the time of the crackdown.
Eyewitness Amr Salah, a doctor at a Tahrir Square field hospital, told the audience that soldiers had tried to storm the makeshift hospital, situated inside the Omar Makram Mosque, on Saturday.
He recounted: "I was helping a girl who had passed out on the street and came back to find a group of soldiers banging on the door of the mosque. I told one of them, ‘I'm a doctor performing a humanitarian duty.’ Just as I was about to convince the soldiers that they shouldn’t attack the hospital, his colleagues began beating me with their batons. They injured me in the head where I had to receive eight stitches."
Salah was also a personal friend of Alaa Abdel-Hady, the medical student shot dead on Friday during the army's dispersal of the Cabinet sit-in.
The next speaker was the man who appeared in the widely-circulated video in which he is shown being beaten next to a female activist who is stripped of her clothes, beaten and dragged into the street by soldiers.
"I screamed at the soldiers that I'm a journalist and asked them to let me take the girl, who had fallen, to a safe place outside. But they separated us and began beating us both,” said Hassan, a journalist for independent daily El-Badil.
Rights lawyer and activist Malek Adly said during his testimony that he had received numerous reports that protesters were being detained and tortured inside the parliament building. Adly went on to say that only 154 of those arrested by the military – including 45 minors – had been officially registered, noting that there were no official prosecution records listing all those detained so far.
Adly said that many detainees bore signs of severe beating and electric shocks on their bodies. "Some detainees were beaten so badly they were unable to move," he asserted.
Adly confirmed reports that one of the detainees, Mohamed Mohey, had died from his injuries inside a holding cell.
"When investigators finally allowed 29 detainees in critical condition to be transferred to a hospital, officers in charge of the police station prevented three ambulances from picking up the injured,” he said. “Then the officers transferred all 29 of them to the hospital in a Central Security vehicle.”
"One of those tortured in the parliament building said that soldiers laid him face-down on the grass and applied electric shocks to his back,” he added. “Then they told him to say, ‘We love you, field-marshal’ [in reference to military council head Field-Marshal Hussein Tantawi]. When he refused, soldiers and officers made him eat grass off the floor."
Adly also said that a female protester on the "wanted" list – Hend Nafea – was being held in a military hospital in critical condition after having been beaten and tortured by the army. She is not being allowed to see any visitors, he said.
Of those to have been arrested, 45 are minors, according to Adly, who said that many of them were street children.
"One of the detained children told me that police had been arresting them [street children] at random for the past week and charging them with ‘inciting violence’ at protests,” said Adly. “Some of those who appeared in the video displayed at the SCAF press conference were homeless street children hired to sabotage protests.”
The mother of a minor who had been at the sit-in during the attack also spoke at the press conference, saying that her son was now in hospital after having been shot in the stomach. "It was his first time to go to a protest,” she recalled. “I asked him, ‘Who shot you?’ and he told me the army did."
Activist Lina Megahed also gave her eyewitness testimony on the attack on Tahrir Square early Tuesday morning.
"After my friends and I arrived at Tahrir after hearing of an attack, we heard very loud gunfire. I saw three bodies that had been riddled with bullets,” she said. “Army units had attacked the field hospital, so there wasn’t even a place to put bodies in. The blood of one martyr ran in the street for more than 20 metres as people carried his prone body."
Megahed, noticeably shaken, held up a piece of bloodstained paper and an empty bullet casing, raising her hands as she continued her account.
"I lost control after I saw that martyr fall. I ran toward the soldiers with this paper and shell casing, kneeling before them and screaming ‘Why?’,” she recounted tearfully. “My friends shouted at me to leave, but I told them, ‘They won't shoot me while I'm kneeling.’ But just as I said this, I saw one soldier raise his rifle at me, so my friends pulled me away and we ran."
The press conference wrapped up with a video shown in response to a press statement by Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri on Saturday in which he denied that the army had used undue force to break up the Cabinet sit-in. The video clearly showed soldiers aiming rifles at protesters at close range. Other video footage showed soldiers beating and dragging protesters on Kasr El-Eini Street, which leads to Tahrir Square.
On 12 October, the ruling military council also held a press conference to give their version of events following the bloody attack on a Coptic protest march in Cairo’s Maspero district that left at least 26 dead. At both conferences, then and now, military council members showed video footage that they claim proved they did not use excessive violence.
However, similar to Tuesday’s conference, activists swiftly organised a press conference the following day, in which they showed videos of army vehicles running over protesters and eyewitnesses gave accounts of protesters being beaten and fired upon.
As of Tuesday night, the death toll from the army's crackdown on the Cabinet sit-in had reached 14, at least nine of whom had reportedly died of gunshot wounds. Injuries, meanwhile, had reportedly surpassed the 800 mark.