Cairo – Egyptian soldiers and police set fire to tents in the middle of Cairo’s Tahrir Square and fired tear gas and rubber bullets in a major assault Sunday to drive out thousands of protesters after two days of clashes.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said police and troops chased the protesters out of most of the square as the sun was about to set over the city. But soon after night fell, hundreds of protesters were making their way back to the square, slowly approaching the heart of the square while waving the red, white and black Egyptian flags and chanting “Allahu Akbar,” or God is greatest.
The protesters are demanding that the military, which took over from Mubarak in February, quickly announce a date for the handover of power to a civilian government.
“This is what they (the military) will do if they rule the country,” one protester screamed while running away from the approaching security forces.
At least a dozen of the protesters’ tents, along with blankets and banners, were set ablaze after nightfall and a pall of black smoke rose over the square as the sound of gunshots rang out. Protesters initially ran away in panic while being chased by army soldiers and police, hitting them with clubs. But they later regrouped at the southern entrance of the square next to the world famous Egyptian museum and began to walk back to the square. Both sides then began pelting each other with rocks.
Tensions are rising on Egypt’s streets in the days leading up to Nov. 28 — the start of the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. The violence reflects rising public anger over the slow pace of reforms and apparent attempts by the ruling generals to retain power over a future civilian government.
“We’re not going anywhere,” said protester Mohammad Radwan. “The mood is good now and people are chanting again.”
The assault followed the protest earlier on Sunday by some 5,000 people in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak in February. Many chanted “freedom, freedom” as they pelted police with rocks and a white cloud of tear gas hung in the air.
“We have a single demand: The marshal must step down and be replaced by a civilian council,” said protester Ahmed Hani, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council and Mubarak’s longtime defense minister. “The violence yesterday showed us that Mubarak is still in power,” said Hani, who was wounded in the forehead by a rubber bullet. He spoke over chants of “freedom, freedom” by hundreds of protesters around him.
In clashes Saturday in Cairo and other major cities, two protesters were killed and hundreds were wounded. The clashes were one of only a few violent confrontations to involve the police since the uprising. The black-clad police were a hated symbol of Mubarak’s regime and they have largely stayed in the background while the military took charge of security. There was no military presence in and around Tahrir Square on Saturday or Sunday.
The military, which took over from Mubarak, has repeatedly pledged to hand over power to an elected government but has yet to set a specific date. According to one timetable floated by the army, the handover will happen after presidential elections are held late next year or early in 2013. The protesters say this is too late and accuse the military of dragging its feet. They want a handover immediately after the end of the staggered parliamentary elections, which begin on Nov. 28 and will take place over the months to come and finish in March.
On Sunday, rocks, shattered glass and trash covered Tahrir Square and the side streets around it. Several hundred protesters were camping out on the lawn of the square’s traffic island, and protesters manning barricades into the square checked the IDs of anyone trying to enter.
The windows of the main campus of the American University in Cairo, which overlooks the square, were shattered and stores were shuttered.
“The marshal is Mubarak’s dog,” read freshly scrawled graffiti in the square.
An Interior Ministry statement said 55 protesters have been arrested since the violence began on Saturday and a total of 85 policemen were hurt in clashes. It said some of the protesters were using firearms, firebombs and knifes to attack security forces.
Yahya el-Sawi, a 21-year-old university student, said he was enraged by the sight of riot police beating up protesters already hurt in an earlier attack by the security forces.
“I did not support the sit-in at the beginning, but when I saw this brutality, I had to come back to be with my brothers,” he said.
Many of the protesters had red eyes and coughed incessantly. Some wore surgical masks to ward off the tear gas. A few fainted, overwhelmed by the gas.
Hundreds of protesters gathered near the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, to offer the Muslim noon prayers, but came under police attack using tear gas and rubber bullets. Ali Saber, a protester who attended the prayer, said the man who led the prayer was hit in the shoulder by a gas canister.
Doctors staffing two field hospitals in the square said they have treated around 700 protesters so far on Sunday. Alaa Mohammed, a doctor, said most of those treated suffered breathing problems or wounds caused by rubber bullets.
“The police are targeting the head, not the legs as they normally do,” said Mohammed.
On Saturday, police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and beat protesters with batons, clearing the square at one point and pushing the fighting into surrounding side streets of downtown Cairo. At least one protester was killed in Cairo, and another in Alexandria, officials said, and 676 were injured.
A member of the military council, Maj. Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, said protesters’ calls for change ahead of the election were a threat to the state.
“What is the point of being in Tahrir?” he asked, speaking by phone to a private TV channel. “What is the point of this strike, of the million marches? Aren’t there legal channels to pursue demands in a way that won’t impact Egypt … internationally?”