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Frustrated Egyptians come out in force

The toll of dead and injured in clashes grows. Anger has been building over the unrealized promise of a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak but has yet to steer the country toward democracy.

November 20, 2011|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan, Los Angeles Times
  • A protester removes a tear gas canister during clashes with Egyptian security forces in Cairo. Security forces and military police firing tear gas and birdshot stormed Tahrir Square to chase out protesters.
A protester removes a tear gas canister during clashes with Egyptian security… (Mohamed Omar, EPA )

Reporting from Cairo — Egypt is frayed, bloody and slipping toward a new revolt.

The clashes that erupted for the second day in a row Sunday between police and protesters are the most volatile challenge in months to the nation's military leaders. The anger glimpsed through the tear gas and on the bruised faces of demonstrators marked a dangerous chasm between the Egyptian people and the generals who have refused to relinquish power to a civilian government.

What is unfolding in the streets of Cairo, Suez and the coastal city of Alexandria is the compounded anger over the unrealized promise of a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February but has yet to steer the country toward a new democracy. Five people have been killed across the nation, including three Sunday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, and more than 1,000 have been injured since violence broke out on Saturday.

Security forces and military police, swinging batons, firing birdshot and driving armored personnel carriers, stormed the square late Sunday afternoon, chasing out protesters and burning tents. The troops quickly retreated and growing ranks of demonstrators returned to the area, yelling epithets against the military as darkness fell. Protesters numbered as many as 20,000 before midnight.

"We are on the brink of danger. Those asking for the government to fall are asking for the state to fall," Gen. Mohsen Fangary said in a TV interview.

But at times, the military appears in denial, as if the deepening discontent against it can be placated or ignored in the run-up to next week's parliamentary elections.

The military is not ready to cede the country's future to an array of political interests, including remnants of the old regime and the dominant Muslim Brotherhood. These forces mistrust one another but they — along with thousands of idle, angry young men — have banded against what they all regard as the larger enemy in the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

But political parties, especially Islamist groups, face a dilemma: They want to tap into the spirit of the protests but do not want violence to jeopardize the country's first significant elections in decades. The Muslim Brotherhood did not endorse the demonstrations but condemned security forces for the bloody crackdown. The ultraconservative Gamaa al Islamiya group told its followers now is "not a suitable time" to take to the streets.

"I should be at work," said Ashraf Hamed, a food vendor who joined Sunday's rally in Tahrir Square. "But I suffered from life under Mubarak and I refuse to continue suffering and keep watching injustices being done to our revolution."

Broken glass, stones and bullet casings littered the square as about 4,000 protesters gathered while riot police battled others on side streets and protected the nearby Interior Ministry. The April 6 Youth Movement and an ultraconservative Islamist presidential candidate announced their support of the protest, but the majority of the demonstrators appeared not to belong to political parties or activist groups.

"I was against the idea of a sit-in but when I saw the police brutality against demonstrators on TV yesterday I decided to come and join them," said Adel Kassem, a university professor. "These people here are the real Egyptians, without any politicians or banners of Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else who has tried to hijack the revolution."

The clashes began early Saturday when several hundred protesters attempted a sit-in after a huge anti-military rally on Friday. The violence resumed Sunday as military helicopters skimmed overhead and shops and businesses closed.

"Leave, leave just like Mubarak!" protesters chanted.

"Down with the field marshal!" yelled others, referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the armed forces.

The police and the military are "doing their best to hinder elections while at the same time falsely showing everyone that the revolution will bring change and democracy," said Ali Shahin, a businessman. "But this is all fake. They want to show that the country is not ready for democracy so they make the changes they want."

The military expanded martial law in September and has been intent on preventing activists from retaking Tahrir Square, which they occupied during the revolt against Mubarak. But the generals face the prospect of possibly provoking widespread bloodshed and unrest that could draw tens of thousands into the streets amid the political turmoil already surrounding the run-up to parliamentary elections on Nov. 28.

"Do not leave the square. This square will lead the way from now on," Hazem Salah abu Ismail, the ultraconservative Islamist presidential candidate, told demonstrators. "Tomorrow the whole of Egypt will follow your lead."

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