Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Military Cracks Down in Egypt

Egyptian Military Forces End to New Protest

By Liam Stack
The New York Times
February 25, 2011

CAIRO — Tens of thousands of protesters returned Friday to Tahrir Square, the site of demonstrations that led to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two weeks ago, to keep up the pressure on Egypt’s military-led transitional government.

But by early Saturday, the military made it clear there would be limits to further dissent as soldiers and plainclothes security officers moved into the square, beating protesters and tearing down their tents, witnesses said.

In a day that had begun with equal parts carnival and anti-government demonstration, protesters’ called for the quick cancellation of the Emergency Law, which for three decades has allowed detentions without trial, and the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general appointed by Mr. Mubarak days before he stepped down.

But after night fell, the protest transformed into a tense standoff between protesters and the military, whose neutrality during the uprising, and unwillingness to fire on the protesters, had turned them into popular heroes.

The first sign of tension arose when hundreds of people rallied in the intersection in front of the prime minister’s office, barred from taking their protest any closer to the ornate building by armored personnel carriers and a line of soldiers armed with Tasers.

The crowd returned to a chant heard often in the days before Mr. Mubarak fell, replacing his name with the prime minister’s: “The people want the overthrow of Ahmed Shafiq!”

Military police surrounded the protesters and kept them from leaving until late at night, witnesses said, while in Tahrir about a thousand people began to pitch tents and settle in for the night.

After midnight, soldiers and police officers took over the square.

Salma Said was asleep in a tent when it began to fall down on top of her. Outside people were screaming, and she emerged to see people being beaten by soldiers and armed plainclothes security officers wearing masks.

“They had their faces covered like criminals,” she said, “They only showed their eyes.”

“One of the officers threatened to shoot us and said he was going to set our tent on fire,” she said.

During the day Friday, the atmosphere could not have been more different. Many protesters had brought their families and were resting on blankets spread out in a grassy traffic island. A man sold chopped liver grilled on a portable stove, vendors offered cheese sandwiches and cups of sweet tea and others sold revolution souvenirs like t-shirts and headbands.

Solidarity with the antigovernment protesters in Libya was also a major theme. Crowds circled the square carrying two massive flags more than 25 feet long, one Egyptian and one of the Libyan monarchy overthrown by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in 1969. Throughout the day protesters chanted “Long live free Libya.”

Protesters called on the military-led transitional government to fulfill demands made during the 18-day protest in Tahrir Square, including the release of political prisoners, the removal of all ministers appointed by Mr. Mubarak and the prosecution of the former president and high ranking members of his party for corruption and abuse of power.

The military has shown little interest in firing Mr. Shafiq, but many Egyptians see him as a proxy for the former president, who has been keeping a low profile in the resort town of Sharm el Sheik since his ouster on Feb. 11.

“We overthrew the President and now we want to get rid of the rest of this corrupt government,” said Ashraf Abdel Aziz, a businessman accompanied by two daughters, ages five and two, who wore tight pigtails and whose faces were painted in the colors of Egypt’s flag. He described the girls, who came to daily protests with him for 18 days earlier this month, as “revolutionaries.”

The spirit of the revolution, which had included people from all segments of Egyptian society, was still evident in the mix of secular leftists, members of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and women wearing full Islamic veils with children in their arms.

Ismael Abdul Latif, 27, a secular writer, chatted with the religious women, only their eyes showing, as they drew revolutionary posters.

“I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that we would be talking to a munaqaba”— as women in full veils are called — “in Tahrir Square,” he said. “A secular artist is having a political debate with a fully veiled lady and having a meaningful conversation. What’s the world coming to?”

But after midnight that answer was less clear.

Ms. Said, after fleeing her tent, ran with a group of other protesters to a nearby plaza, where they began to plot their next move. “In the morning,” she said, “we are going back to Tahrir.”

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