CAIRO — A demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square turned into a melee of rock-throwing and gunfire early Saturday, leaving at least one person dead and more than 70 others injured and worsening tensions that have silenced the once-popular chants of “the people and the army are one.”
On Saturday, bloodstains, bullet casings and smoldering army trucks littered the square, where only two months ago soldiers and protesters celebrated together the ouster of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The military insisted that its soldiers hadn't discharged a single live round and had fired only blanks to disperse the crowd. But amateur video posted online showed columns of solders besieging the square, beating protesters and firing their weapons.
“There was a battle taking place in the square. I saw military personnel in ski masks, fully armed, cordoning off the mosque and not allowing anybody out,” said Magda Mohamed, 48, a protester who was sleeping in a mosque adjacent the square when she was awakened by the gunfire. “I saw others in different parts of the square, shooting at people. I saw a number of injured people being carried away by other protesters.”
During the 18-day revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian military was viewed with near-universal admiration for siding with the people and avoiding a bloodbath like Libya or Yemen, where the armed forces are split between pro-government supporters and defectors who back popular uprisings.
But once the country's highest military council became Egypt’s ruling authority upon Mubarak’s ouster Feb. 11, relations between the military and protesters began to sour. Egyptian youth groups and human rights activists say the army has engaged in torture, arbitrary arrests, military trials, and even “virginity tests” for some women protesters.
The military still has its defenders, especially among older Egyptians who view the army as a keeper of stability. Kidnappings and other violent crimes are on the rise, according to local media reports, and some Egyptians fear an outbreak of violence if the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces doesn’t keep a firm hand on this restive nation.
“Though the Mubarak appointees on the Supreme Council govern without accountability or transparency, a real constituency of Egyptians appears to believe they are steering the country out of the most corrupt phase in its history,” Josh Stacher, an Egypt expert, wrote last week for the Middle East Research and Information Project, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on Arab issues.
What led to the violence was in dispute. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had staged a peaceful demonstration Friday in Tahrir Square calling for the prosecution of Mubarak-era officials and to pressure the military on promised reforms.
The spark for the army attack on protesters who'd remained after curfew came when several uniformed army officers renounced their commanders and took to the stage before the stunned crowd. Calling themselves “the free officers,” the men produced their army ID cards as proof of their story, witnesses said.
“The IDs had their ranks, their names, their address, and where they served in the army,” Mohamed, the woman from the mosque, said. “They stayed around, chanting and singing with the protesters. They were carried by the youth.”
Activists said the pre-dawn attack on Tahrir Square was an effort by the army to arrest the alleged defectors, so protesters protected the officers and hurled rocks at the encroaching forces.
The military offered a different version: the uniformed men were impostors suspected of trying to sow unrest. The military said it had detained several uniformed men _ the alleged impostors _ among the 42 people arrested during the incident.
The army said the suspects included three foreigners, though it provided no details. It said an investigation in underway.
“Not a single shot was used against the protesters, although the army was attacked by rocks and Molotov cocktails,” Lt. Gen. Adel Emara, deputy defense minister, told a news conference in Cairo. “All the injuries reported yesterday were minor and were caused by either rocks being thrown or a stampede.”
Egypt’s health ministry announced that one person was killed and 71 were injured. Some activists put the wounded toll much higher.
Late Saturday night, before the 2 a.m. curfew, hundred of protesters remained in Tahrir Square and the scene was calm with no military interference. The crowds were chanting for the resignation of the Egypt's defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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