Fears Egypt is on the brink of second revolution
UP to 35 protestors have been killed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in clashes for the third day running amid scenes redolent of the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the former president, nine months ago.
The unrest, which spread to other major cities, is among the most serious – and the most threatening – since Mr Mubarak's downfall.
For the first time since the revolt, Egypt's black-uniformed police force, one of Mr Mubarak's most hated instruments of repression, was deployed in force, a fact that served to exacerbate rather than alleviate tensions.
Protesters in Tahrir Square said they now saw no difference between the generals and the president they succeeded.
"The violence is the same as the old regime," one said.
With the mood hardening, many called for the military to step aside immediately.
"We have a single demand: The marshal must step down and be replaced by a civilian council," Ahmed Hani, one protester, was quoted as saying. "The violence yesterday showed us that Mubarak is still in power."
Freshly scrawled graffiti near the square put it more succinctly: "The marshal is Mubarak's dog."
For three days, the police battled an ever swelling number of protesters in central Cairo, opening fire with tear gas, rubber bullets and bird shot in the city's Tahrir Square – the epicentre of the revolution that toppled Mr Mubarak – and the streets and alleyways off it.
The demonstrators retaliated with an endless volley of stones and the occasional Molotov cocktail and by yesterday afternoon the storied square appeared once again to be in the hands of the people.
Just as in late January and early February, protesters erected barricades at its entrance points, checking the identity papers of all who wanted to gain access.
But the retreat by the security forces was only a temporary one, designed to regroup rather than admit surrender. The generals ruling Egypt are all too aware that losing control of Tahrir Square meant that Mr Mubarak's downfall became virtually inevitable, and are anxious not to suffer the same fate.
Throughout the day, the battle ebbed and flowed, with violence spilling out of the square as protesters attempted to march on the nearby interior ministry, perhaps the most hated building in Egypt from where Mr Mubarak organised the repression of his people.
Once again, it was the focus of the protesters' anger and the street leading to the building swiftly filled with the detritus of civil disorder. Stones and rubble littered the road, windows were smashed and shopkeepers shuttered their stores and fled.
Beaten back from the ministry, the protesters retreated once more to Tahrir Square. With the army called in as reinforcements, wave after wave of baton charges were unleashed. The air filled with choking tear gas and gunfire crackled relentlessly.
As they had done at the start of the year, the protesters – some Islamists, but most of them secular – lined up in front of the security forces and began to pray. It did not work.
"They are beating us harshly, they didn't care for either men or women," one protester, Ali Abdelaziz, said.
The protests were far smaller than at the height of the revolution, with fewer than 5,000 in the square, but the ferocity of the violence and the speed with which it spread to Alexandria and Suez, cities at the forefront of the revolution, pointed to the dangerously volatile situation in which Egypt once again finds itself.
Egypt's transition to civilian rule, which passes a major milestone when the first elections since Mr Mubarak's downfall are held next week [Nov 29], has been far from smooth.
But never before has the antipathy towards the military leadership that has managed Egypt since February been as marked as it is now.
Hailed as the people's saviours during the revolution, the army is now perceived as the principal obstacle to Egypt achieving democracy. Under the leadership of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been accused of drawing out the transition and plotting to ensure that the army remains the supreme arbiter in the land.
Many Egyptians will blame the intensity of the violence on police overreaction. The clashes were sparked when police forcibly attempted to dismantle a tented camp in Tahrir Square manned by fewer than 200 protesters who had gathered to mourn relatives killed in the uprising against Mr Mubarak.
With news spreading of police beatings, thousands more converged on the square, which was quickly engulfed in chaos. As the clashes intensified, protesters set alight an armoured military vehicle and two police cars.
The mood soured further as protesters discovered that the police, just as they had done in January and February, were using tear gas canisters with US and Hebrew markings.
Hopes that the violence can be reined in may depend on how the army and the civilian cabinet it appointed responds. So far, however, the response has been unyielding.
Mansour el-Essawy, the interior minister whose resignation was demanded by the protesters, insisted that the police had nothing to do with the violence, claiming, in a throwback to the language of the Mubarak era, that the demonstrators had shot at each other.
It was a claim that was challenged by protesters, witnesses and journalists, two of whom were shot in the face by a police officer standing on top of an armoured vehicle. A number of protesters were partially blinded, among them Malek Mostafa, a prominent activist who was said to have lost his right eye.
Opposition parties urged the ruling military council to implement a series of measures to end the violence, calling on it to replace the civilian cabinet it has appoint the administer the country and to promise to hold presidential elections by the end of May. The army has indicated that a presidential vote might not take place until 2013.
The generals, however, appeared to be in no mood to make concessions, warning instead that they would take even more robust action if the unrest persisted.
"If security is not applied, we will implement the rule of law," said General Mohsen al-Fangari, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's de-facto government. "Anyone who does wrong will pay for it."
Although the security forces appear to have regained control of the square by nightfall, many protesters had merely retreated to side streets, vowing they will come back.
They accused the military of seeking to stoke the violence to provide a pretext for postponing the elections, due to begin next Monday, in a bid to tighten their grip on power even more.
"We know what is afoot and we will not allow it," one activist said. "We have sacrificed too much blood already to tolerate the replacement of one dictator with another. Egypt will be, and must be, free."