Egypt Crackdown: The Undeclared War on Radical Dissent

A protester flashes a victory sign with his bloodied hand as other protesters throw stones at army soldiers at the cabinet near Tahrir Square in Cairo 16 December 2011. (Photo: REUTERS - Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

By: Serene Assir

Published Saturday, December 17, 2011

With several people dead and hundreds injured at the sit-in near the Cabinet building, the Egyptian military seems intent on crushing an increasingly isolated radical protest movement.

Cairo Three weeks into a sit-in at the gates of the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo, Egyptian protesters faced a brutal military crackdown Friday that apparently involved the use of live ammunition, electric taser weapons and sticks, as well as Molotov cocktails and stones thrown from rooftops above Qasr al-Aini Street.

At least three people have been killed, according to the Ministry of Health. “The death toll may actually be higher, because the use of live ammunition continues as we speak,” said field doctor Melad Atef. Several hundred were reportedly injured.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a statement denying the use of live ammunition against protesters. The statement also said people in Egypt have the right to peaceful protest. In an interview with Egyptian state television, General Director for Security in Cairo General Mohsen Murad blamed protesters for ongoing violence.

The last Facebook status update by one of those reportedly killed, Alaa Abdel Hadi, made waves in online activism circles. “I’m going out to see whats happening,” he wrote. “May God protect us.” He never returned.

Meanwhile, hundreds have been wounded, with a prevalence of injuries to the head, the legs and the backs of protesters. The Egyptian Ministry of Health cited 257 injured. Calls from downtown Cairo for additional medical volunteers continued through the evening, as injuries continued to rise.

While military police have been involved in a number of rounds of clashes with protesters, Friday’s was one of the first crackdowns executed directly by the Egyptian Armed Forces.

“We are unsure exactly why the Army has used such excessive force against the protesters,” said human rights lawyer Ahmed Seif al-Islam, father of jailed blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah. Seif al-Islam’s two daughters, Mona and Sanaa, suffered beatings Friday at the hands of the military, he said, though by the evening they were safe at home.

“It may be that the Army is raising the heat on protesters voicing their opposition to the military regime, while working hard to turn the population against the protest movement,” said Seif al-Islam. “Otherwise, there really is no explanation for the extreme brutality witnessed Friday.”

Protesters throw stones at army soldiers at the cabinet near Tahrir Square in Cairo 16 December 2011. (Photo: REUTERS - Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Qasr al-Aini, one of Cairo’s main roads near Tahrir Square, was cordoned off early Friday morning, before the military ambushed the side street housing the Cabinet building from both ends. While stones were reportedly thrown into the sit-in on this street, police limited the movement of traffic along the main road. “The kids have set fire to Tahrir,” claimed one policeman standing guard at the top of Qasr al-Aini. “They have started the violence,” he told passersby.

Similarly, according to Egyptian news website Bikya Masr, state television carried reports claiming that the “the men above the Cabinet building were not security, but instead protesters attempting to attack the military and security ‘protecting the Cabinet.’” In reality, those injured were civilian protesters, rushed by motorbike to nearby makeshift field clinics by volunteers.

Many of those who sustained head injuries caused by stones hurled from rooftops, including minors, bled heavily. Most of those throwing stones into the crowds wore civilian clothing; footage released by online activists late in the day showed some wearing army uniforms.

Violence set to continue

The violence witnessed on Qasr al-Aini Friday “looks set to continue,” said coordinator of the Popular Committees for the Defense of the Revolution Ahmed Ezzat. “The ongoing use of live ammunition is especially worrying. We can’t envisage the crackdown will let up unless the use of live rounds stops,” Ezzat said.

The Cabinet sit-in’s aim was to demand that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) hand over power immediately to a civilian government. The street housing the sit-in was taken over Friday by the military, with protesters’ tents reportedly set on fire. “I’ve been involved in many clashes with the security forces,” said 22-year-old protester Ahmed Fathi. “We don’t want violence. But if we are attacked, we have to defend ourselves, even if it’s just with stones. Every time the SCAF uses violence against us, it loses points.”

But with downtown Cairo relatively isolated over recent weeks and “no credible coverage in the Egyptian press, we need to defend ourselves and even be willing to die,” said Fathi. “This kind of violence shows people what the military regime is willing to do.”

Fathi sustained injuries to the leg, and believed he needed an X-ray for his badly swollen forearm. “But I don’t want to leave. I want to stay as long as I can and support my friends.”

It was not only the political activists and supporters of the demand that the SCAF hand over power to a civilian regime who felt solidarity with the protesters. Bystander and nearby Omar Makram Mosque employee Kamel Sayid said it was hard for him to watch how Tahrir Square was once again turned into a scene of violence and injury.

“These people, all they are doing is defending their right to a better life,” Sayid said. He explained that, 10 months on from the January 25 revolution, little in his life had changed for the better.

“I earn 300 Egyptian Pounds (US$50) per month. Do you think that is enough to live on?” he asked. Sayid did not blame the protesters for Egypt’s current economic woes, but the authorities. “If only the regime gave the protesters what they want, things would get better. We all have the right to live happily, not only the rich.”

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