“The ruling military council just wants the protesters to come to the Ministry of Defense and attack them. Then there will be a major crisis, and the military can stay in power,” said Taha, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Giza committee, sitting in a café at Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The Brotherhood had called on its members to join several demonstrations in Tahrir on Friday. Taha had just arrived from Giza, across the Nile, content to now sit down. Members from farther away had been arriving by bus all morning. By early afternoon the majority in the square was wearing white and green Brotherhood caps. Other groups were marching toward the Ministry of Defense.
The protests were organized in response to the killing of 11 protesters by alleged government-paid thugs in front of the Ministry of Defense this week. “No to the killing of Egyptians at the hands of Egyptians,” the central banner on Tahrir read.
But the mood in the square was not so much one of defiance and anger against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, but of duty. “After the protest is over we head back to Giza to continue our election campaign,” said Taha. In about two weeks, Egypt is to hold its first free presidential elections ever.
On Thursday, SCAF issued a warning against any further protests in front of the Ministry of Defense, vowing to use force to defend it. Instead, people should stay in Tahrir Square, they said. Many did not heed the call.
“Tahrir Square became like a cage for us,” said 22-year old protester Osama, standing on the kilometer-long street in front of the Ministry of Defense. “We’re here because we want to send a stronger message.”
“The SCAF has to go. We can’t have elections under military rule, and we can’t write our constitution under military rule. They are liars, and they are going to cheat,” he added.
Officially the protesters asked the military to hand over power as scheduled and for the cancellation of Article 28, which stipulates that the results of the presidential elections cannot be legally challenged.
Just half an hour before, protesters and military police started to clash. Thousands of people thronged back and forth, injured people with cuts on their faces were shuttled out on motorcycles, and the protesters and military police exchanged a constant hail of rocks.
“We are here to continue our revolution. We will stay until the SCAF leaves,” Osama said before heading back to the front lines. Only minutes later the military would make it clear that it was not willing to compromise, setting up what a protester later called a “death trap.”
The first volley of tear gas sent thousands of protesters into retreat, stumbling, crying and unable to breath. They entered Abbasiya Square, just to find all but one exit blocked off. A deep phalanx of military police kept pushing forward, and helicopters circled overhead.
The protesters decided to march back to Tahrir Square, but soon the sound of gunfire rang across the long four-lane street that leads away from Abbasiya. In a panic, the fleeing protesters ran into another line of police that blocked off the remaining exit.
The neighborhood that surrounds Abbasiya is known to be a stronghold of supporters of the old regime. In recent months there were repeated demonstrations in favor of SCAF by self-proclaimed “Righteous Citizens” groups. Many of them, trusting state-owned TV channels, perceive the revolutionaries as dangerous.
Seeing no other way to escape the military’s trap, the protesters ran into the maze of narrow streets of the neighborhood, hoping that their numbers would protect them. They dashed down alleyways, just to find themselves in another trap. Abbasiya residents lined the streets, clutching knives, handguns and improvised clubs, spitting and cursing at the fleeing protesters. Scores were attacked and injured, others were helped and led out to safer areas.
According to official sources, 170 protesters were detained and face military trials. Over 300 were injured, and two people were killed. SCAF declared a curfew for the whole neighborhood of Abbasiya and the area surrounding the Ministry of Defense.
Political talk shows last night – an important barometer of the mood in Egypt since the revolution – were filled with scorn for the Muslim Brotherhood. Commentators blamed the group for abandoning the revolution. Every time a confrontation between revolutionaries and SCAF occurs, many said, the Brothers fail to show up. Others said the clashes will only benefit those presidential candidates who have been campaigning on security issues, namely Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafik. Both served as ministers under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.