In Cairo today, security forces clashed with Egyptian protesters for the third straight day after a brutal Army crackdown on demonstrators yesterday, marking an escalation of violence by Egypt’s military rulers.
The fighting came in the middle of Egypt’s staggered parliamentary elections, which have progressed relatively smoothly despite street clashes that raged the week before the vote began.
But this weekend's renewed violence, including the documented use of live ammunition against unarmed protesters, undermines the Army's narrative that Egypt's democratic transition is on track.
The fighting also shows a disturbing pattern of systematic violence which, coupled with a lack of accountability, has further eroded confidence in the ruling military council to provide stability and leadership at a sensitive time of transition.
'A new red line'
Clashes that started early Friday escalated when the Egyptian Army launched a brutal attack on demonstrators Saturday. Troops swept through the central Cairo street where the protesters had congregated and into nearby Tahrir Square, beating and arresting protesters and onlookers alike.
Photos and video showed soldiers stripping a woman of her shirt and dragging her across the pavement while beating and kicking her. Videos and photos also show soldiers firing handguns at protesters as the soldiers attacked. Ten people were killed in the clashes, at least seven from gunshot wounds.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, says the high number of deaths by live ammunition at the hands of the Army, which has been seen as a disciplined organization, is a new and startling development.
“We've seen this kind of shootings by police and Central Security Forces in the past, but most previous violations by military personnel were through excessive violence in the form of beatings or even in Maspero ... running over protesters with armored vehicles," he says, referring to the violent crackdown on mainly Coptic Christian protesters in October. "But this is the first time we have this clear indication that members of the armed forces used live ammunition to gun down protesters.”
“This is yet again another turning point, another red line crossed by the armed forces, who until very recently always claimed to have never pointed a gun at any Egyptian citizen,” he adds.
Nearly half of a civilian advisory council recently appointed by the military leaders resigned over the weekend in protest of the violence. Some have called for early presidential elections to transfer executive power out of the hands of the ruling military council, known as SCAF.
"The SCAF is the biggest threat to Egyptian democracy," says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "The SCAF is also the biggest threat to Egyptian stability and security."
'They smash the cameras and tell lies about us'
In an apparent effort to keep the news of the crackdown from getting out, Army officers yesterday stormed into apartments and a hotel overlooking Tahrir square from which journalists and citizens had photographed and videoed the violence. The officers confiscated and destroyed cameras, throwing recording equipment used by Al Jazeera English off a balcony.
Even as the military was attacking protesters, Egypt’s prime minister denied that security forces were using violence. Kamal Ganzouri, who was appointed several weeks ago after his predecessor resigned in the face of mass protests against military rule, said in a press conference that the protesters were against the revolution. He added that any gunshots came from an unidentified third party, not security forces. State television subsequently attempted to demonize protesters, running interviews with supposed demonstrators who said they had been paid to foment violence.
Outside Tahrir, many Egyptians readily agreed with the portrayal of the protesters as thugs, or disagreed with their decision to protest. “They deserve to die – they’re destroying our economy and stability,” says security guard Hassan Mohamed, who works in downtown Cairo. Many lauded the military’s oversight of relatively smooth elections over the past three weeks.
The official results from the second round of elections, held last week, are due out today. The geographically staggered elections for the lower house of parliament are scheduled to continue throughout January.
Some protesters suggested that the military felt it had enough popular support, partially from the strong participation in elections, to crack down on protesters without repercussions.
“They think no one will care when they beat us and kill us like this,” says a protester who gives his name as Ahmed. “They think no one will see, so they smash the cameras and tell lies about us on television.”
Bizarre, undisciplined behavior from soldiers
According to protesters, the clashes began Friday after the military detained and viciously beat a protester who was part of a sit-in at the Cabinet building calling for the end of military rule. After Saturday’s crackdown, the Army built a wall of concrete blocks in a large downtown street where clashes had centered, effectively dividing the Army from the protesters.
But both sides continued to exchange volleys of rocks and Molotov cocktails over the wall. Army soldiers also shot fireworks into the crowd from behind the wall, continuing bizarre and undisciplined behavior that included appearing to urinate on protesters from rooftops, and throwing furniture on the crowd.
But the violence and brutality continued a pattern from throughout the year, in which violent crackdowns on protesters inflame the situation and create further instability.
“The military keeps moving consciously to a point of no return,” says Mr. Bahgat. “It seems that they don't even bother to engage the protesters or maintain a minimum level of trust anymore, and clearly they are trying to also mobilize public opinion against the protesters and at the same time are not taking any measures to reform the civilian security forces but are in fact replicating the same heinous crimes committed by the civilian police forces.”