For the third time since the Egyptian revolution began, the army has forcibly cleared protesters staging a peaceful sit-in in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak and brought the Supreme Council of Armed Forces to power.
Hundreds of armed military police, central security forces, uniformed police and plainclothes officers backed by armored vehicles stormed the square on Monday afternoon as many were fasting in observance of the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Soldiers beat protesters with truncheons, tore down tents and destroyed vendors' carts in the street. More than 150 people were injured and up to 270 arrested. A number of people taking pictures at the scene had their cameras and mobiles confiscated or destroyed, and at least one journalist, a BBC reporter, was detained.
The assault was the latest confrontation between the ruling military council and the youth of the revolution who have grown increasingly frustrated with the military's council's authoritarian rule in the transitional period and the lack of justice and accountability for former regime members and police accused of killing protesters during the 18-day uprising.
The number of protesters engaged in the sit-in when the army decided to clear it had dwindled significantly from its height as a mass encampment that began on July 8. Over the weekend, more than 20 political groups and movements had decided to suspend the sit-in until the end of Ramadan. A few dozen families of some of those killed in the revolution refused to leave the sit-in and a number of protesters stayed with them in solidarity. Discussions were taking place to reopen the square to traffic before the army decided to forcibly retake the square.
Hundreds of bystanders cheered the soldiers on as they ransacked the square, resuming the chant of "the people, the army, one hand"—ubiquitous during the first three weeks of the revolution. Many were local merchants, frustrated with the continued closure of Tahrir, while others accused those taking part in the sit-in of being criminals and troublemakers. Some even joined the soldiers in ripping down tents and began roaming the surrounding streets, pointing out suspected protesters and handing them over to military police.
For the previous two weeks, members of the Supreme Council had accused the protesters of intentionally trying to destabilize the country, and had portrayed them as thugs or foreign agents funded from abroad. (The irony of the Egyptian military, which receives $1.3 billion annually in aid from the United States, accusing protesters of foreign funding was lost on the ruling generals.) The council even went so far as to single out a particular group for the first time, releasing a statement on its Facebook page that accused the April 6 Youth Movement—which had been instrumental in organizing the January 25 revolution—of trying to drive a wedge between the army and the people.
In response, many groups put out statements and organized a march in solidarity with the April 6 Youth Movement. Some protesters took to wearing T-shirts with the words "I am a thug" emblazoned in Arabic, poking fun at the military council's accusations. The disconnect between the protesting youth and the military council was apparent when Major General Ismail Etman, a member of the Supreme Council, claimed in an interview the night of the army's raid on Tahrir that people had been arrested in the square for throwing rocks or for wearing the "Tahrir thug" T-shirts.
By nightfall, thousands of military and security police had been deployed to Tahrir and the streets of downtown Cairo were lined with trucks carrying central security forces. Some activists lamented that the scene reminded them of January 26, the day after the revolution began, when the Mubarak regime deployed its security forces in full force on the streets of Cairo and other cities in an attempt to quash the uprising.
The army assault came two days before Mubarak is scheduled to go on trial on charges of involvement in the killing of protesters as well as corruption charges in a real estate deal and a natural gas deal with Israel. Also on trial are his two sons, Gamal and Alaa, the former interior minister, Habib al Adly, and six of his aides, as well as Hussein Salem, an Egyptian businessman who is currently in Spain and is being tried in absentia. The trial is being held at the Police Academy, a remote location on the outskirts of Cairo, and will be broadcast live on state television. While the other defendants will be driven in armored convoy from the prison in Tora where they are being held, Mubarak is expected to be flown in from Sharm El Sheikh where he is being treated in hospital. There have been conflicting reports about his health but the public prosecutor nonetheless ordered the former president appear in court.
Many are skeptical the Supreme Council will allow their former commander in chief to be paraded on TV wearing the white prison overalls of the accused while appearing behind bars in the courtroom cage. But many say it is a necessary step in Egypt's transition. As the trial begins, the whole country will be watching.