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2 Protesters Killed in Egypt’s Tahrir Square
Khaled Desouki/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Tahrir Square on Saturday, hours after several thousand riot police, uniformed soldiers and military police officers stormed it.
By LIAM STACK and MONA EL-NAGGAR
Published: April 9, 2011
CAIRO — Egypt’s security forces shot and killed at least two protesters and wounded dozens before dawn Saturday in an attempt to disperse peaceful demonstrators spending the night in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square, officials and witnesses said.
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The crackdown was the most brutal since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 and since the military started running the country.
While the square seethed with anger and betrayal, several protest leaders issued restrained statements that appeared to be aimed at de-escalating the confrontation and heading off further violence.
Early Sunday, a military curfew ended with no confrontation as more than a thousand protesters remained in the square, even after the ruling military council had vowed to clear them out with “firmness and force.”
The military tried to play down the violence, denying that anyone had been killed, and to distance itself from it, insisting that those who had raided the square were police officers under the control of the Interior Ministry.
And in a page that could have been taken from Mr. Mubarak’s manual, the military also asserted that the protesters had been infiltrated by “thugs” and “outlaws.” A senior military officer said the troublemakers were sent by Mubarak loyalists.
But the army’s version of events was contradicted even by its own government: a report from the Ministry of Health said one person had died.
Doctors at the Qasr el-Aini Hospital backed witnesses’ reports that two people had been fatally shot on Saturday; they said they had also treated 35 people for injuries sustained in the clash. Human rights lawyers said 42 protesters had been detained and later interrogated on charges of violating the national curfew, and also of violating a ban on protests enacted by the cabinet on March 24.
The protest began Friday, when tens of thousands of people turned out in Tahrir Square to protest the military’s tactics, which activists said included the torture of protesters, the abuse of women and the detention of thousands of people. The protest was one of the largest since Mr. Mubarak was ousted.
As another night, another curfew and another possible confrontation approached on Saturday, protest leaders condemned the crackdown, but also offered words clearly intended to turn down the temperature in the square.
Mohamed ElBaradei​, an opposition leader and potential presidential candidate, posted a statement to his Facebook page that said: “The continuation of trust between the people and the army is a red line in order to protect the nation. Dialogue is the only alternative.”
The Muslim Brotherhood​, Egypt’s best organized political force, which had endorsed the protest on Friday, issued a statement on Saturday under the heading, “The Army and the People Are One Hand,” a popular chant among protesters when they were calling on the military to take their side during the revolution.
“The union that happened between the army and the people during the great revolution must continue and be stronger,” the statement said.
The Coalition of Youth of the Revolution, an association of groups that had helped organize the revolution, said it would suspend any dialogue with the military until the crackdown was investigated and people were held accountable.
But a member of the coalition, Islam Lotfy, while saying that the group defended “everyone’s right to protest,” conceded that “we didn’t think it was the right time for a sit-in.”
Despite these messages, many remained in the square, setting up tents as night fell on Saturday and attesting to the decentralization of what had begun as, and in many ways still is, a people’s protest. And even the opposition leaders who issued conciliatory statements may be quietly counting on those in the square to turn up the political pressure on the military.
The army has been struggling for weeks to establish control in a country frustrated by increasing poverty and decades of strong-arm rule. It has announced new elections, a central demand of demonstrators, but has still faced labor protests and weekly demonstrations by those pushing it to move faster to make democratic changes. The accusations of rights abuses have led some protesters to say that they had overthrown a dictator but not the dictatorship.
There was evidence of that on Saturday morning, when gunfire was heard in downtown Cairo for over two hours as several thousand riot police officers, uniformed soldiers and military police officers stormed the square.
“It was raining bullets,” said Houssam, 26, who did not want to give his last name for security reasons, while wandering the square at midday looking for friends he had lost in the predawn melee. “It was an enormous amount of shooting. I didn’t know what was going on.”
Security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the military used live ammunition, tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters, who said they were chased down narrow side streets as they tried to flee.
Protesters regained control of the square by sunrise, forcing security forces back under a barrage of stones and setting fire to three of their vehicles.
By midday, the square was sealed behind makeshift barricades of barbed wire and metal girders and littered with stones from the early morning clashes.
Protesters said they were joined by as many as two dozen uniformed defectors from the armed forces, dubbed “free soldiers,” who tried to protect the protesters.
While politicians and protest leaders were more measured, the mood in the square was outrage.
“The military leaders are corrupt, ignorant criminals!” shouted one protester, Essam, who would not give his last name for fear of reprisals. “The next protest, we must leave Tahrir and go to the Ministry of Defense.”
A version of this article appeared in print on April 10, 2011, on page A10 of the New York edition.
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