Egypt protesters defy army after deadly crackdown

By Samer al-Atrush

CAIRO — More than 1,000 Egyptians protested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday after an overnight sit-in demonstration when the army backed down on a threat to disperse them.

The protesters, who blocked the square with a charred army truck, barbed wire and beams, chanted slogans against military chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who has been in charge since president Hosni Mubarak’s February ouster.

“The people demand the toppling of the field marshal,” they chanted, after spending a nervous night waiting for the army to follow through with its warning to enforce a three-hour pre-dawn curfew.

Soldiers, backed by riot police, had dispersed an overnight protest in the iconic square before dawn on Saturday, with one protester shot dead.

The military later warned it would clear out remaining protesters, keeping the demonstrators on edge throughout the night as the curfew countdown began.

Groups of young men whistled and banged at the barricades when they thought the military, which stayed of sight, was approaching, prompting others to run to them with sticks.

As the curfew neared its end, some protesters began to chant jokingly: “Hit us, hit us, you are taking your time and we’re bored.”

Their numbers waxed and waned throughout the morning, with groups of protesters locked in arguments with passers-by who wanted them to leave the square, which remained closed to traffic.

By the afternoon there were more than a 1,000 of them. Groups of protesters would rush to the barricades when their sentries yelled that “thugs” were sighted. There was no noticeable security presence.

The protesters faced mounting criticism from other groups that took part in the revolt that toppled Mubarak, however.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised opposition movement, had from the start described protesters against the military as feckless “zealots.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood condemns any attempt to weaken (the military’s relationship with the people), and especially attempts to cause any split between the military and the people or to pit them against each other,” it said.

“It is apparent that there are those who are striving to accomplish that from the remnants of the old regime, and some zealots who do not consider consequences,” it said.

A senior Brotherhood official, Essam al-Erian, said on Sunday that the group stood by the statement after the deadly clash and refused to comment on the military’s actions.

State television and newspapers played up criticism by other opposition figures.

But a youth group that spearheaded the protests, the Coalition of Youth of the January 25 Revolution, said it had suspended dealings with the military over the incident.

“We have suspended communications with the military and next Friday there will be a protest if the detainees are not released and there is an investigation into what happened in Tahrir,” said Shadi Ghazali Harb, one of the group’s leaders.

The military has called the protesters “outlaws” and suggested they might be led by former ruling party officials.

It said it arrested 42 of them, and denied using force or live ammunition to disperse the demonstration.

Since Mubarak quit, protesters have held regular Friday demonstrations, the most recent one tens of thousands strong, demanding that he and other former regime officials face trial.

Saturday’s death was the first in the square since it became the focal point for the 18 days of protests that triggered Mubarak’s resignation on February 11.

The army denied it was responsible for the death of a protester who was shot in the mouth, saying no fatalities were discovered when it cleared the square to enforce the curfew.

It said four soldiers and nine protesters were wounded.

“Those who remain in the square will be dispersed,” General Ismail Etman told reporters. But his warning was ignored by the demonstrators.

“I’m not scared, I’m sad it came to this, but what right does the army have to attack us?” asked one protester, Mohammed Abdel Al.

Tantawi, who was the ousted president’s defence minister for two of his three decades in power, has vowed to oversee a swift return to civilian rule after limited amendments to the Mubarak-era constitution were approved in a referendum last month.

See Related: Egypt disperses Tahrir Square crowds by force

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Photo By Luke Thomas

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