Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers swept into Cairo’s Tahrir Square today, chasing protesters and beating them to the ground with sticks and throwing journalists’ TV cameras off balconies in the second day of a violent crackdown on anti-military protesters that has left nine dead and hundreds injured.
The violent, chaotic scenes have brought to the fore the simmering tensions between the ruling military council that took power after Hosni Mubarak’s ousting and activists demanding the generals transfer power immediately to civilians.
The clashes also serve as a near repeat of the deadly street fighting between youth protesters and security forces in November that lasted for days and left more than 40 dead.
Early today, hundreds of protesters hurled stones at security forces, who set up a concrete wall and barbed wire to seal off streets between Tahrir and the nearby parliament building. Soldiers on rooftops pelted the crowds below with stones, prompting many of the protesters to pick up helmets, satellite dishes or sheets of metal to try to shield themselves.
Stones, dirt and shattered glass littered the streets, while flames leapt out of the windows of a two-story building set ablaze near parliament, sending thick plumes of black smoke into the sky.
Witnesses said soldiers wielding batons and dressed in riot gear then chased protesters through the streets and into Tahrir Square, which served as the epicentre of the uprising that toppled Mubarak in February.
Footage broadcast on the private Egyptian CBC television network showed soldiers beating two protesters with sticks, repeatedly stamping on the head of one, before leaving the motionless bodies on the pavement.
Soldiers set fire to tents inside the square, and swept through buildings where television crews were filming and confiscated their equipment and briefly detained journalists.
In one case, soldiers charged up the stairs of a hotel from which Al-Jazeera TV was filming the turmoil below and demanded a female hotel worker tell them where the media crew was or else they would beat her up, a member of the Al-Jazeera crew said.
“The woman was screaming and saying I don’t know,” the crew member said.
The soldiers, who were in plainclothes, found the Al-Jazeera crew and threw their equipment from the balcony, including cameras, batteries and lighting equipment to the streets, landing on a sweet potato cart whose stove started a fire.
Protester Islam Mohammed said that he saw the army forces storming a field hospital held next to a mosque in Tahrir Square and throwing medicine and equipment to the streets before chasing protesters away from the square.
At least nine people have been killed and around 300 people injured in the two days of clashes, the Health Ministry said.
Egypt’s prime minister defended the security forces’ response. While he acknowledged that people have died from gunshot wounds, he denied the military and the police had fired at protesters. Instead, he said “a group came from the back and fired at protesters” and that his government is for “the salvation of the revolution”.
He charged the anti-military protests outside the Cabinet building as “anti-revolution”.
“I feel very sad and in so much pain,” he told reporters in a press conference broadcast on Egyptian state TV. “I stress here that the armed forces didn’t engage with protesters and didn’t leave the building.”
The military in the past has blamed unidentified third parties for incidents in which protesters have been shot.
Rights groups and activists, however, charge that the military is carrying on the practices of the old regime, including arresting and beating dissidents. Many Egyptians have grown increasingly frustrated with its handling of the country’s transition period, and activists accuse the ruling generals of trying to hang on to power.