A group of policemen carry an image of a slain officer at a protest in Tahrir… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)
Reporting from Cairo — Egypt's long-feared and widely hated national police marched onto the hallowed ground of Tahrir Square on Monday, sparking outrage by insisting that police officers allegedly killed by anti-government forces during the uprising should be honored as heroes.
Egyptians still celebrating their Friday victory over deposed President Hosni Mubarak stood in stunned silence when hundreds of police blocked traffic in the square, chanting slogans and waving posters bearing the images of eight dead colleagues. Many wore their standard garb: black uniforms, black berets, black boots and black sunglasses.
But angry jeering erupted from those not prepared to offer instant redemption after suffering decades of state-sponsored police brutality and corruption, including the deaths of an estimated 300 protesters during the 18-day revolt. The shouting and counter-protests grew so heated that soldiers rushed over to restore calm.
"You are thieves! You are killers!" one woman screamed from the curb, her face contorted in anger. "Go home and leave us alone!"
The face-off marks a key fault line as Egypt struggles to emerge from an autocracy that used torture, arbitrary arrests and unchecked police power against its own people: How can those who suffered such abuses reconcile with the most visible agents of state repression?
Bridging the divide will be crucial if Egypt is to avoid further turmoil in the uncertain period ahead. The military council now in charge has pledged to hold free elections within six months, but has left the old government — including an estimated 1.4 million police, state security and internal intelligence officers — in place.
The challenge comes as the army seeks to revive an economy crippled by the revolt and stem a series of labor strikes that have disrupted private industries and government institutions, including police and transportation systems.
Egypt's labor unions have never aligned themselves with political opposition groups, and strikes are common. But labor groups have tried to take advantage of the last three weeks of unrest by stepping up their demands.
Appearing on state TV Monday, a military spokesman warned that strikes "in this crucial time lead to negative consequences." He called on labor groups and management to stop the disruptions, to "create the right atmosphere … until we transfer leadership to a civilian-elected authority."
The army also faced new pressure from a coalition of 13 young activists who played a major role in the anti-Mubarak protests. In its first news conference, they called on the military council to dismiss the senior ministers whom Mubarak named on Jan. 28 and appoint a new Cabinet.
The Mubarak team that was "the main cause of anger and frustration of the people that led to this revolution shouldn't continue its duties even if just for the transitional period," said Shady El Ghazali, who represents one of the five pro-democracy groups in the coalition.
Coalition members, who met with top military officers for the first time Sunday night, said they also demanded an end to the 30-year-old emergency decrees that permit arbitrary arrest and detention. They also want the release of political prisoners and a law allowing political parties to form.
The military announced Sunday that it had issued orders to dissolve parliament and suspend the 1971 constitution until it can be amended. But the coalition said a new parliament should draft a new constitution to provide a solid foundation for a multiparty democracy.
"There is no such thing as amending an invalid constitution," said Nasser Abdel Hamid, a member of the coalition. The group said it would meet military leaders again Wednesday.
Under Mubarak, "torture and police brutality are endemic and widespread," according to a 2009. U.S. Embassy cable released by WikiLeaks. The cable cites estimates of "literally hundreds of torture incidents every day in Cairo police stations alone."
One notorious case became a catalyst for the revolt that ousted Mubarak.
In June in Alexandria, 28-year-old Khaled Said was beaten to death by police, according to witnesses, apparently after he posted a video online that showed policemen dividing up drugs seized in a bust. Photos of Said's body bearing gruesome injuries were posted on Facebook and became a rallying point for protest organizers. The Arabic-language Facebook page, "We are all Khaled Said," has more than 800,000 "likes."
The police demonstrations began Sunday, when a group demanding higher wages, pensions and better working conditions gathered outside Cairo's fortress-like Interior Ministry, headquarters for internal security.
The protests expanded Monday to demand deference for eight colleagues who police said were killed when anti-government protesters sacked and burned police stations in several cities. Those attacks came after government forces opened fire on protesters in Tahrir Square, killing 24 demonstrators.