Mohamed Mahmoud II
A shaky truce has been reached following a vicious five-day battle between protesters and anti-riot police which killed 15 people in the aftermath of the Port Said disaster. However, violence could be renewed amid calls for civil disobedience on Saturday, the first anniversary of Mubarak's removal, reports Khaled Dawoud
The angry masses had barely finished burying 74 young men, tragically killed in Port Said Stadium on 1 February. They were united in blaming the Interior Ministry and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for the disaster. Thus, it only took them a few hours before they started gathering in Tahrir Square, and immediately headed towards the nearby heavily fortified, castle-like headquarters of the Interior Ministry at Sheikh Rihan Street in downtown Cairo.
The result was five days of nearly non-stop running battles between a few thousand protesters and anti-riot police who were sometimes aided by residents of Abdine neighbourhood where the ministry is located, after their life came to a standstill and heavy damages were inflicted on their properties.
According to Health Ministry officials, 10 people were killed, mostly by birdshot which anti- riot police used in large quantities despite official denials by Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim in parliament on Tuesday. At least 200 people were wounded. Similar clashes also broke out in the city of Suez, killing five people, and in several other cities, with all protesters blaming the Interior Ministry and SCAF for failing to protect hundreds of football fans of the Al-Ahli team who went to Port Said to attend the club's game against home team Al-Masri. The demonstrators also raised demands for an immediate transfer of power from SCAF to an elected president, saying that the army generals had clearly failed in running the transitional period following the forced removal of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which runs parallel to Sheikh Rihan where the Interior Ministry is located, was the scene of some of the fiercest battles that raged between police and protesters between Thursday and early Tuesday morning. The same street had witnessed bloody clashes in mid- November after army soldiers forcibly removed from Tahrir Square dozens of relatives of those who were wounded during the 25 January 2011 Revolution and complained they did not receive the care they were promised. At least 45 people were killed in those clashes, and the result was closing down that vital street where the American University in Cairo (AUC) and dozens of shops and restaurants are located, by huge cement blocks over the past three months. Those blocks were among the first targets of the angry protesters, who quickly brought them down and started hurling rocks at anti-riot police. The soldiers responded with heavy use of tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
Eyewitnesses maintained that anti-riot police soldiers and officers were largely restrained during the first day of clashes. But as the protests went on, orders were clearly given to use more force, particularly birdshot pellets which could be fatal, and which have already left hundreds of young Egyptians either half or fully blinded.
Public opinion has also gradually started shifting against the protesters, particularly as violence spreads across the country. Several police stations and public prisons have recently come under attack by armed elements. Average Egyptians clearly fear a repeat of the total breakdown of security a year ago during the revolution against Mubarak. Several initiatives took place by public figures and newly elected members of parliament to put an end to the violence. Representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist groups were among those who tried to mediate, but they were sharply criticised by protesters who accused them of colluding with SCAF in order to maintain the majority they managed to win recently in parliament. A few liberal MPs, such as Mohamed Abu Hamed, member of the Free Egyptians Party, was shouted down by fellow members of parliament belonging to the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafist Nour Party when he displayed empty cases of birdshot police used against protesters, thus denying claims by the Interior Ministry that they had only used tear gas.
Interior Minister Ibrahim had also appealed to prominent football players and public figures popular among groups that support the 25 January Revolution to mediate to stop the violence. At one point on Sunday, anti-riot soldiers stood up in an unprecedented scene holding a banner appealing to protesters to leave Mohamed Mahmoud Street, stop trying to attack the Interior Ministry, and return to Tahrir Square. "We are your brothers. Go Back to Tahrir," read the banner held by anti-riot soldiers.
On Saturday, a building that belongs to the Taxation Authority was set on fire, and police charged that thugs and outlaws infiltrated protesters to further worsen the situation. Yet, as this reporter witnessed events unfold on Sunday, policemen dressed in civilian clothes quickly snatched a few protesters from the front lines as they stood opposite each other. They were immediately taken to the nearby Interior Ministry building, and, in most cases, beaten and dragged away by police officers and soldiers.
Meanwhile, all mediation efforts proved difficult in making headway. The mainly young, average Egyptian men, including many football fans and dozens of homeless children between the ages of nine and 15 who usually seek shelter under the bridges at Tahrir Square, were clearly angered by the Port Said tragedy and the loss of their relatives and friends. They said they were also disappointed by the failure of the parliament and SCAF to take immediate action to punish those who were responsible for the tragic loss of life of so many young men. Videos and pictures of police officers and anti-riot police standing still while mobs raided the field in Port Said, and simply started slaughtering Al-Ahli fans and throwing them off the higher levels of the stadium, were repeatedly displayed all over local television channels. A fact-finding mission which the parliament sent to Port Said also confirmed reports that the exit door which Al-Ahli fans could have used to run for their lives was locked from the inside. Conspiracy theories were particularly rife because hard-core Al-Ahli supporters, known as the Ultras, have a long-standing battle with anti-riot police and the Interior Ministry that dates back years. Football fans have complained that they have generally been mistreated and abused by anti- riot police when they attend popular games with the claim of providing security. Some of their most popular slogans they chant during games are against the police and SCAF.
"I'm here because my cousin was killed in Port Said," said a 17-year-old protester. "The Interior Ministry killed my friends, and I have to take revenge with my own hands," he told the Weekly. He added that he was not scared of the tear gas and pellets, noting that personally he was skilled in catching tear gas canisters and throwing them back at anti-riot police. Another young man said that, "the military and police conspired to kill us because we used to curse at them during football games."
As the battles raged, police had clearly followed a strategy based on keeping the protesters at a distance by using tear gas and birdshot pellets, while army and police bulldozers were quickly erecting concrete barrier walls in all the side streets off Mohamed Mahmoud that lead to the Interior Ministry. Huge cement blocks were placed in at least five side streets, while army tanks surrounded the immediate outside parameters of the Interior Ministry. On Monday evening, and after finishing the setting up of the walls, the anti-riot police suddenly pulled out from Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and a couple of hundred people dressed in civilian clothes proceeded towards the remaining protesters to push them back to Tahrir Square. The civilians said they were residents of the neighbourhood who could no longer stand the tear gas and the damage to their buildings and shops. A spokesman for the Health Ministry said at least two people were killed on Monday evening, one by a knife, while a second was thrown off the roof of the Taxation Authority building in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. By Tuesday morning, a shaky calm prevailed at Mohamed Mahmoud as local residents established a checkpoint at the main entrance of the street off Tahrir Square. They also started clearing the street of rocks and debris of many small fires.
Groups that oppose SCAF and demand an immediate transfer of power had called for a general strike on 11 February to mark the first anniversary of Mubarak's removal. Thus, many observers fear that the shaky truce at Mohamed Mahmoud might not last long, and that a new round of clashes might start soon. The institution of Al-Azhar, highly respected among Egyptians, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties have all issued statements condemning the call for a general strike and civil disobedience, saying it will only make things worse amid the present deteriorating economic situation. However, anti-SCAF groups said they were adamant, and would go on with their call for a strike which they said had already been supported by a few universities and labour unions.