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Egypt’s days of rage – Tahrir: protesters insistent, “SCAF must go”

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First published in The Caravan on Sunday October 23, 2011

After a nine-month hiatus, the revolution continues, with Egyptians returning to Tahrir Square in unprecedented defiance of the ruling military council.

The sickening smell of their “new and improved” tear gas filled the air as they directed their rubber bullets, buckshots and live ammunition against their own countrymen.

“That will teach you to revolt you son of a bitch!” screams an officer as he guns a man down.

I was not close enough to see what became of the man – I hope he is alive – but such was the vitriol coming from the officer I heard him all the way from my relatively secure spot. This was not a political conflict; the sheer brutality of police onslaughts led many to believe they were exacting vengeance.

Bloodstained youth hurried down Mohamed Mahmoud Street carrying their fallen comrades on their shoulders as the Health Ministry updated the death toll to 30. Lies.

But the protesters’ resolve remained unbroken, with hundreds of thousands eventually flocking into Tahrir Square and hundreds of brave revolutionary youth heading into Mohamed Mahmoud to stop the police and CSF’s advances.

And stop them they did, for four days straight.

The protesters clearly had the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in their sights; they wanted it removed from the political sphere. That was the main and very obvious sentiment expressed by the hundreds of thousands occupying Tahrir Square over the past week.

The atmosphere swung like a pendulum from ecstatic as more protesters joined in and melancholic as the body of a martyr or injured protester was brought in from Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a war zone, every few minutes.

Not an ordinary protest

One thing I felt for sure, though, this is not another ordinary protest; this is the continuation of the January 25 Revolution that seemed to have ground to a halt in previous months.

Some even considered it a failed revolution, since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 and the military took over.

Last week’s anti-SCAF demonstration started out as a customary Friday protest held almost regularly since Mubarak’s ouster, with different groups heading to the square with their own demands.

Revolutionary youth were calling for SCAF to hold presidential elections immediately after parliamentary polls and to hand over power in April 2012 as they initially promised.

Islamists were there protesting Deputy Prime Minister Aly El Salmy’s supra-constitutional principles document, specifically articles nine and ten, which gave SCAF too much power over the process of writing the constitution and even after the handover to civilian rule.

As I toured the square on Friday, I felt cynical and defeated. Between the large numbers of Islamists after secular parties decided to boycott the demonstration, and the sense futility as another protest went on unaddressed and barely acknowledged I was beginning to think this revolution was truly over.

Word went round of a sit-in, comprised mainly of martyrs families and injured victims from last January. Numbers were low and predictably the police went in to disband them late at night and early morning using tear gas, rubber bullets and buckshot.

What was not predictable, however, was the backlash that use of force generated. As the police were dragging the dead body of a man across the street for a few meters, thousands made their way to Tahrir to take part in a battle that would rage on till we went to print on Wednesday.

An old trend re-emerged, especially on Saturday, as the police made a point to shoot protesters in the eyes. One prominent blogger lost an eye; another protester lost his second eye after losing the first on January 28.

As I walked through the square on Monday, I heard that Sharaf’s cabinet resigned. The protesters were fired up by the news; it did not satisfy them, but spurred them on.

“The people demand the removal of the Field Marshal,” they chanted. “Down with military rule,” they screamed.

“We are not here to oust Essam Sharaf, everyone knows he is useless,” an old man told me.

“It’s the military council that’s calling the shots, and they must go,” he said.

Tensions begin to rise rapidly in the square. Once every half an hour or so protesters come running from Mohamed Mahmoud, sparking massive panic among the rest, thinking the police have finally broken through.

When that isn’t happening, ambulances or motorcycles drive through the square carrying the scores of injured. Once in a while a body is brought back to the square carried by blood-stained protesters.

Two of the people I’m with ventured into Mohamed Mahmoud; a man standing between them was shot directly in the chest and died immediately.

A few hours later, I reluctantly followed as they attempted to check out Mohamed Mahmoud close up, we get to AUC’s main campus when people start running and a stampede unfolded.

The gas was so bad that I couldn’t breathe – face mask and all. When we finally reached the main square again I went into a coughing fit. I sneezed black mucus. And I only got as far as AUC.

Protesters announced holding a million man march the next day under the title of “national salvation.”

A reported two million people flocked to the Square protesting SCAF’s rule and demanding a civilian government.

Things in the Square were relatively uneventful with the exception of the ongoing battle in Mohamed Mahmoud street.

State TV announced Field Marshal Tantawi was to make a speech shortly at around 3 p.m. He made it at 10 p.m.

After a long introduction about how the military only wants to hand power to a civilian government and that “unforeseen events” were always derailing that goal, Tantawi announced accepting the cabinet’s resignation and that a national salvation cabinet would be formed.

He did not apologize for the scores of dead and injured, saying SCAF would only go back to their barracks as a result of a popular referendum.

Later that night, word broke out of the police using a new, third type of tear gas, with some claiming it was nerve gas.

What was sure though was that it left dozens suffocating, spasming and unconscious.

At press time, a battle continued to rage in Tahrir after police broke a ceasefire they had agreed on earlier in the day.

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Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

October 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Posted in Analysis, Egypt, Opinion

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