Tue, May 08, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Egyptian generals wait in the wings as the revolution turns messy

In Cairo, violence flares between gangs and Islamists. In Alexandria, discontent grows as the country’s politicians lose their way ahead of elections. And over them all looms the shadow of an army far from ready to give up power

By Peter Beaumont  /  The Observer, CAIRO

Illustration:Yusha

There is a narrow footbridge overlooking the entrance to the Egyptian Ministry of Defense the Abbasiya District of Cairo. On Friday afternoon, this crowded bridge provided the best view of the front line in the latest round of violent clashes between the army and demonstrators, who suspect the country’s ruling generals of wanting to hold on to power.

On one side of a ring of barbed wire, soldiers hurled bricks and fired tear gas. Below the bridge, the protesters facing the soldiers threw their own missiles, while others removed the injured on motorbikes or carried them limp on their shoulders, some insensible, others spattered in blood.

I bumped into Hazem Abdel Rahman, a young protester, drenched in sweat, holding his injured arm.

“I came here this morning and everything was peaceful. People linked arms to keep the crowd back from the Ministry of Defense, but then after Friday prayers, people whom we did not know came and infiltrated our demonstration and started throwing stones,” he said.

Others said the trouble started after some protesters were grabbed by the soldiers trying to cross the wire. A few minutes after I spoke to Hazem, the first sound of live gunfire rang out, driving the protesters back in panic. I ran, but found myself trapped between two groups of soldiers, forced to climb several walls and cross a railway line to escape, only to be confronted by an angry group of supporters of the military.

“You are a spy,” one shouted, attempting to drag me away for questioning, prevented in his efforts by the intervention of other residents.

Other journalists covering events in Abbasiya in the last few days have not been so fortunate. Eighteen have been arrested or injured, including one who reportedly had an ear cut off during an attack.

Egypt’s long-awaited presidential elections — the first round of which begins on May 23 — appear to be unraveling amid rising violence and protest. By the end of Friday, two people were dead, including a soldier; hundreds had been injured or arrested; and a curfew had been imposed by the army in the area where the violence was worst.

Once again, the most significant fault line of the protests — one that threatens to overshadow the election campaign — has been the growing rift between the generals and the political parties that would replace them when — or rather if — the army relinquishes power, as it has promised to do, on June 30.

Some of those out protesting on Friday have special reason to despise them. In Tahrir Square, a few hours before the violent dispersal of the protest in Abbasiya, I had met Mohammed Atta, a 45-year-old tour guide. He had been in Abbasiya on Wednesday and witnessed the baltagiya — well-organized gangs of armed thugs — attack a sit-in dominated by ultraconservative Salafi Muslims and supported by revolutionaries, outside the defense ministry. That day, at least 11 people died, many shot in the head at close quarters.

I encountered Atta attending a protest in the square called by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest against those killings.

“I was in the middle of the street [in Abbasiya] when they came in from one end,” Atta said. “I saw them come out from where the police were.”

Atta fled, chased by 12 men. He left behind him the body of his murdered friend, Atif al-Gohary, a 41-year-old chef.

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