The peaceful protest before a bloody confrontation

Nada El-Kouny , Friday 4 May 2012

Despite stern warnings from military on Thursday, Egyptian activists marched on on Friday to defence ministry to peacefully protest last week deaths and demand immediate transition to civilian rule before the day turned bloody

Protestors marching to Abbasiya before clashes began later the day (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Thousands of protesters set out for Egypt's Ministry of Defence on Friday to demand that the country's military rulers abdicate power in favour of a civilian authority.

Marchers set out from the Fetah Mosque in Cairo's Ramses district following Friday noon prayers, which ended with worshippers chanting, "Down, down with the military regime."

Several political groups organised the march to the ministry, located in the capital's Abbasiya district, where activists – from both Salafist and revolutionary groups – have been staging a sit-in protest since last Saturday. Groups that took part in organising Friday's march included the April 6 Youth Movement; the Revolution Youth Coalition; the National Front for Justice and Democracy; and the Youth for Justice and Freedom.

The march was endorsed by several other revolutionary and leftist groups, including the Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution; the Egyptian Current Party; the Second Egyptian Revolution Movement; the Popular Socialist Alliance; and the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces.

Most of those who participated in the march, however, appeared to do so on an individual basis rather than as part of a particular party or movement.

Along with the immediate handover of power to a civilian authority, marchers' demands included the amendment of Article 28 of the constitutional declaration (issued by the ruling military council in the wake of last year's revolution and approved via popular referendum) and the resignation of the heads of the military-appointed Supreme Presidential Elections Commission.

Members of the "Ultras" football groups were also out in large numbers, loudly singing popular revolutionary songs to energise protesters.

"Where are the Baltagiya [thugs]?" marchers chanted. "The Revolutionaries are here!"

Despite the jubilant tone, there were palpable feelings of anger and sorrow over the recent death of at least 11 protesters, most at the hands of unidentified assailants. An Ain Shams University medical student carried a placard bearing the images of two fellow students – Alaa Abdel Hadi and Abul-Hassan Ibrahim – both killed in the violence on Tuesday.

While the health ministry puts the death toll at 11, Mohamed Kamel Maamoun, 20, who has volunteered at a makeshift field hospital since Saturday, said that by Tuesday evening at least 21 people had been killed. Injuries, meanwhile, were in the hundreds, he said.

Maamoun went on to voice frustration with the residents of Abbasiya. ""They don't understand anything," he complained.  "They see the protesters as thugs and troublemakers."

Local residents, meanwhile, peered down at the march from their balconies.

"Come down, come down, before Egypt falls with us and with you," protesters shouted up to them.

Mervat Moussa, 30, who led parts of the march, stressed that she does not belong to any particular political orientation. "Most of those you see here are not serving any personal interests," she said, going on point out those that she felt were "self-interested" political actors groups.

She went on to cite recent examples of what she deemed "failures" by Egypt's ruling military council, which she described as an "enemy" of the Egyptian people.

"I'll join any protest, whether it's with supporters of [disqualified Salafist presidential candidate] Hazem Abu-Ismail or otherwise," Moussa said. "I'll stand with anyone whose blood has been shed due to the military's failure to protect protesters."

Protester Mohamed Sadek, 50, said he had been moved to join Friday's march by the thought of "the parents of these young students and martyrs killed in the violence, who must feel that their children's blood was shed for nothing."

On Thursday, the ruling military council issued a statement warning protesters against staging protests at or near the defence ministry. Marcher Omneya Ahmed, 30, however, believes the stern warning ended up working in favour of the march, in which hundreds of thousands appeared to take part.

"We're not going to the ministry to attack it," she said. "The people are going there to take a stand, not wage war."

As marchers approached the ministry building, they began chanting again and again: "This time it's for real."

Clashes were reported soon after the first wave of marchers arrived to the area in the mid-afternoon, while eyewitnesses at the scene reported hearing gunshots with increasing frequency.

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