Jack Shenker in Cairo – Guardian.co.uk November 21, 2011
Fierce fighting resumed in central Cairo on Monday as the Egyptian health ministry said the death toll from the anti-junta protests had reached at least 20, with more than 1,700 injured.
The violence is concentrated on the south-west corner of Tahrir Square, in central Cairo, where a heavily-fortified line of security forces has been holding ground for 48 hours.
Teargas and other ammunition is being fired from their stronghold in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, near the Interior Ministry. A makeshift field hospital in the square was attacked with teargas.
Earlier, an uneasy agreement had been reached between some protesters and the authorities, allowing the demonstrators to remain in the square in return for fighting on its fringes coming to an end.
But that ceasefire collapsed on Monday morning as street battles erupted again.
On Sunday, several political parties and individual candidates said they were suspending their electoral campaigns after the weekend brought some of the fiercest clashes since February, when Hosni Mubarak was ejected from power.
Protesters vowed to stay in Tahrir Square until Egypt‘s military authorities had been removed. Many said they were ready to die for the revolution, which is now targeting the army generals of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (Scaf), which replaced Mubarak.
Amid calls for a national government of salvation to be set up to face down the junta, the opposition figurehead Mohamed ElBaradei said he was ready to do “whatever it takes” to save Egypt from the deepening crisis.
“I think what we’ve seen today is an excessive use of force, bordering on a slaughterhouse, against innocent civilians exercising their inalienable right to demonstrate,” he told the Guardian.
The interim authorities said the elections, due to begin on 28 November, would go ahead as planned, and thanked security officers for “self-restraint in dealing with the events”.
ElBaradei said: “It’s yet another indication that Scaf and the current government are failing to govern, and I fully sympathise with the increasing calls coming from different quarters, including Tahrir, for a new government of national salvation that represents all shades of Egyptian society – one with full power.
“I will do anything to save the country from falling apart, and what we are seeing right now is the country going down.”
Critics say the elections will be meaningless if they are not accompanied by the retreat of Scaf and a return to civilian rule. The generals say they will continue ruling until after a new constitution is created.
Major unrest spread beyond Cairo to the large cities of Suez and Alexandria, where at least one leading activist was killed. Mass demonstrations and attacks on police stations were reported in several other towns throughout the Nile Delta and southern Egypt.
Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s only female presidential candidate and an outspoken opponent of military rule, was among those believed to have been arrested.
Speaking just before her detention, Kamel told the Guardian that the violence exposed “the ugly face of Mubarak that has been lurking behind Scaf all along”. She said she backed ElBaradei to lead a transitional civilian government that would wrest control of the country back from the generals.
Such a move would throw Egypt into unprecedented confusion, with two rival political entities potentially declaring themselves to be the country’s legitimate government. It would almost certainly lead to a postponement of the poll.
But to have any chance of succeeding, any self-declared civilian authority would require support from a broad consensus of the political landscape, including the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice party is predicted to be the biggest single winners in the new parliament.
“What happens next is anyone’s guess because everything is up in the air right now,” Issandr el-Amrani, a prominent blogger and analyst of Egyptian affairs, said.
“The Islamists are relatively invested in elections taking place as planned, and we are still waiting for the political elite to put forward concrete alternative proposals. But the fact is that events on the ground are moving so fast that they are overtaking all these political considerations.”
Throughout Saturday, protesters fought running battles with central security forces – a hated symbol of brutality under the Mubarak dictatorship.
Motorbikes ferried hundreds of wounded civilians to a makeshift field hospital on the edge of Tahrir Square, where a handful of doctors, helped by volunteers, struggled to deal with the influx.
“We are seeing many patients suffering from severe gas inhalation and flesh wounds from different types of ammunition,” Amr Wageeh, a 21-year-old medical student, said.
“I’ve been here four hours and helped treat over 100 in that time – it’s hard because the teargas that’s being used is stronger than what we’ve dealt with in the past and appears resistant to [the normal remedies of] vinegar and soda.
“The elections can go to hell – Tahrir comes first, and we must complete our half-finished revolution before starting to organise a vote.
“If Scaf think they can do to us what Assad has done to the Syrians and Saleh has done to Yemenis, they are in for a surprise. The Egyptians will do to Scaf what Nato did to Libya. The generals are a remnant of Mubarak, and they will be swept aside.”