Growing Protest Repels Troops in Cairo

Many compared the breadth and intensity of the new fight for the square — the iconic heart of the Egyptian revolt and the Arab Spring — to the early days of the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, only this time the target of the protesters’ ire was the ruling military council and its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
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The military-led government’s attempts to beat back or squash the protests appeared to only redouble their strength. After using tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot to beat back a day of continuous attacks on the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, hundreds of soldiers and security police in riot gear stormed the square from several directions at once about 5 p.m., raining down rocks and tear gas as they drove thousands of demonstrators out before them.

But after less than half an hour they had retreated, having succeeded only in burning down a few tents in the middle of the square. And after another half an hour, the crowd of protesters had more than doubled, packing the square as ever more demonstrators marched in from all directions, chanting for the end of military rule.

The protests spread to at least seven other cities, including Alexandria and Suez. The Health Ministry said at least seven people were reported killed Sunday, after one died Saturday, and the number of seriously injured grew to over 900. A makeshift field hospital the protesters had set up in a mosque near the square treated a steady stream of hundreds bloodied by birdshot and rubber bullets and recorded at least one of the fatalities.

Despite the chaos, the military-led government said Sunday that it intended to go forward with parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in stages next Monday, though they will not be complete until March, and the military has said it intends to hold power until long after they are finished. Canceling or postponing the elections would be likely ignite an even larger revolt, with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt’s largest and most disciplined political force, taking to the streets.

A spectrum of political organizations, including the Brotherhood and the young liberal leaders of the original revolt against Mubarak, called Sunday for the military to commit to an accelerated schedule for handing power to civilians — either to some imagined crisis government, the lower house of Parliament when it is seated early next year, or to a new president elected as soon as April. At least three prominent liberal parliamentary candidates and some parties declared that they were suspending their campaigns because of the crisis.

But the new revolt against interim military rule appeared even more spontaneous and less organized than the original uprising. There was no sign of leaders and few political movements present in the square, and it was hard to imagine with whom the military could negotiate if it chose to work out a handover of power.

“I saw the revolution being slain, so I had to come,” said Ahmed Hamza, 41, a lawyer, watching the fray. Like many in the square, he vowed to stay until the ruling military council committed to a swift exit from power but also said he feared the generals welcomed the chaos as a pretext to cancel elections.

In a television interview late Saturday night, Gen. Mohsen Fangary, a spokesman for the ruling military council, promised a formal response the next day. He blamed demonstrators for igniting the violence, suggested protesters were “enemies” of Egypt, and he hinted that unnamed satellite news channels — presumably Al Jazeera — had played a role. “The youth are blinded to the reality of the situation,” he said.

Coming two days after a huge Islamist demonstration and just more than a week before the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the outpouring of anger was the strongest rebuke yet to the military’s attempts to grant itself permanent governmental powers. And it was a reuniting of Islamist and liberal protest movements that had drifted apart since the early days of the uprising.