Violent clashes continue in Tahrir as protesters reject Tantawi speech

Mostafa Ali,Wednesday 23 Nov 2011

Ahram Online reports from the frontline as protesters denounce Field Marshal Tantawi's speech and Central Security Forces continue their brutal crackdown with tear gas and rubber bullets

Tahrir square.
Protesters throw stones at police who are firing tear gas, during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 23, 2011. (Photo: Reuters)

At 7am on Wednesday, volunteer doctors were still racing to treat and save the lives of tens of protesters injured in bloody clashes with Central Security Forces (CSF) on Mohamed Mahmoud Street south of Tahrir Square.

In one of the bloodiest days of Egypt’s nine-month-old revolution tens of ambulances were ferrying demonstrators suffering from gunshot and rubber bullet wounds to nearby hospitals, only to return immediately to pick up more victims.

Young men drove motorcycles and Vespas deep into Mohamed Mahmoud Street to pick up the less seriously injured, particularly those suffocating on CSF tear gas, and drop them at makeshift field hospitals inside the square.

At least 100,000 protesters still packed the square hours after Field Marshal Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, told the nation he had accepted the resignation of Prime Minster Essam Sharaf.

The atmosphere inside the square resembled a combination of 28 January, one of the bloodiest nights of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, and 9 February, the day of a peaceful sit-in by huge numbers of people hours before the former dictator announced he was standing down.

Throughout the night, Tahrir echoed with anti-SCAF chants, climaxing after Field Marshal Tantawi’s speech at around 8pm on Tuesday.

While ambulance sirens and the bodies of injured or fallen protesters gave the square the feeling of a warzone, thousands split their energy between transporting the wounded to hospital and chanting "Down Down with SCAF!"

A huge banner displaying pictures of 10 of the 16 army generals who sit on the ruling military council accused them of continuing the brutally repressive policies synonymous with Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule.

The banner listed the crimes it says Tantawi had committed, which include revamping Mubarak's repressive state apparatus, running the armed forces as a private business with industrial, agricultural and construction projects, and killing peaceful demonstrators.

In his primetime speech in response to the demonstrations that have rocked central Cairo and other towns in recent days, Tantawi denied security forces had used violence against civilians and promised an eventual handover of power to a civilian administration.

Protesters in the square met the field marshal's speech with loud denunciations and were wary of a new SCAF attempt to pour cold water on revolution’s momentum.

A semi-spontaneous consensus had been reached in the square over the course of the four-day uprising against SCAF, whereby no political parties were allowed to set up banners or stages in Tahrir to avoid disagreements and friction, and political forces seen as conciliatory to the army generals were excluded.

Exuding a new sense of confidence after retaking the square for the first time since soldiers smashed the last peaceful sit-in by revolutionaries on 1 August, thousands of protesters condemned the Muslim Brotherhood for not supporting this new phase of the revolution.

However, some Salafists were in the square, refusing to abide by their leadership’s decision to focus efforts on parliamentary elections set for 28 November.

In addition to the usual posters and stencilled drawing of martyrs we have become accustomed to since the eruption of the January 25 Revolution, the walls around Tahrir were covered with pictures of military prisons and martyrs killed by the military.

Pictures of detained activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah and martyr Mina Daniel were on many walls and flags.

Many banners also held the picture of Ahmed Harara who lost his first eye during Mubarak’s rule on 28 January and his second under military rule on 19 November. Many demonstrators wore stickers saying “no to military trials of civilians” and they covered surrounding walls.  

Street vendors took advantage of the huge numbers of people to sell snacks and candies. Adapting to the situation they also sold tear gas protection masks and goggles for those fighting on the frontline.

Many in the square had set up tents to sleep in, whilst hundreds of others simply collapsed with fatigue under blankets in a desperate attempt to catch a few hours rest after more than 72 hours battling the security forces.

As sunrise approached, the square felt like a warzone. The nauseating smell of tear gas saturated the air, and volunteers were still carrying tens of injured to field hospitals inside the square and regular hospitals outside.

Most demonstrators inside the square were bracing themselves for a much longer sit-in to pressure SCAF to hand power to a civilian government and return to their barracks.

Supporters deemed the Tuesday of National Salvation, as organisers had dubbed the day’s event, a success, as it mobilised the largest rally against military rule since SCAF took power on 11 February, and brought down the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, the second cabinet to fall victim to mass mobilisation in less than eight months.

Thousands in the square, emboldened by growing public anger over the military’s handling of the situation and its failure to stop CSF from drowning peaceful protesters in blood, seem to be launching a new phase in the struggle to end 60 years of military rule in Egypt.

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