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Gunfire pounds anti-Mubarak protest camp in Cairo

Posted by Admin on February 3, 2011

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110203/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_egypt

CAIROHeavy automatic weapons fire pounded the anti-government protest camp in Cairo‘s Tahrir Square before dawn on Thursday in a dramatic escalation of what appeared to be a well-orchestrated series of assaults on the demonstrators. At least three protesters were killed by gunfire, according to one of the activists.

The crowds seeking an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s nearly three decades in power were still reeling from attacks hours earlier in which Mubarak supporters charged into the square on horses and camels, lashing people with whips, while others rained firebombs and rocks from rooftops.

The protesters accused Mubarak’s regime of unleashing a force of paid thugs and plainclothes police to crush their unprecedented nine-day-old movement, a day after the 82-year-old president refused to step down. They showed off police ID badges they said were wrested from their attackers. Some government workers said their employers ordered them into the streets.

The violence intensified overnight, as sustained bursts of automatic gunfire and powerful single shots rained into the square starting at around 4 a.m. and continuing for more than two hours.

Protest organizer Mustafa el-Naggar said he saw the bodies of three dead protesters being carried toward an ambulance. He said the gunfire came from at least three locations in the distance and that the Egyptian military, which has ringed the square with tank squads for days to try to keep some order, did not intervene.

Footage from AP Television News showed one tank spreading a thick smoke screen along a highway overpass just to the north of the square in an apparent attempt to deprive attackers of a high vantage point. The two sides seemed to be battling for control of the overpass, which leads to a main bridge over the Nile.

In the darkness, groups of men hurled firebombs and rocks from the bridge, where a wrecked car sat engulfed in flames. Others dragged two apparently lifeless bodies from the area.

Egypt‘s health minister did not answer a phone call seeking confirmation of the number killed.

Click image to see photos of anti-government protests in Egypt

At daybreak, the two sides were still battling with rocks and flaming bottles of gasoline along the front line on the northern edge of the square, near the famed Egyptian Museum.

Demonstrators took cover behind makeshift barricades of corrugated metal sheeting taken from a nearby construction site and Mubarak supporters seemed to hold their ground on the overpass. Between them stretched a burning no-man’s-land of smoldering cars, hunks of concrete and fires.

The fighting began more than 12 hours earlier, turning the celebratory atmosphere in the square over the previous day into one of terror and sending a stream of wounded to makeshift clinics in mosques and alleyways on the anti-government side. Three people died in the violence on Wednesday and 600 were injured.

Mustafa el-Fiqqi, a senior official from the ruling National Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that businessmen connected to the ruling party were responsible for what happened.

The notion that the state may have coordinated violence against protesters, who had kept a peaceful vigil in Tahrir Square for five days, prompted a sharp rebuke from the Obama administration.

“If any of the violence is instigated by the government, it should stop immediately,” said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

The clashes marked a dangerous new phase in Egypt’s upheaval: the first significant violence between government supporters and opponents. The crisis took a sharp turn for the worse almost immediately after Mubarak rejected the calls for him to give up power or leave the country, stubbornly proclaiming he would die on Egyptian soil.

His words were a blow to the protesters. They also suggest that authorities want to turn back the clock to the tight state control enforced before the protests began.

Mubarak’s supporters turned up on the streets Wednesday in significant numbers for the first time. Some were hostile to journalists and foreigners. Two Associated Press correspondents and several other journalists were roughed up in Cairo. State TV had reported that foreigners were caught distributing anti-Mubarak leaflets, apparently trying to depict the movement as foreign-fueled.

The scenes of mayhem were certain to add to the fear that is already running high in this capital of 18 million people after a weekend of looting and lawlessness and the escape of thousands of prisoners from jails in the chaos.

Soldiers surrounding Tahrir Square fired occasional shots in the air throughout Wednesday’s clashes but did not appear to otherwise intervene and no uniformed police were seen. Most of the troops took shelter behind or inside the armored vehicles and tanks stationed at the entrances to the square.

“Why don’t you protect us?” some protesters shouted at the soldiers, who replied they did not have orders to do so and told people to go home.

“The army is neglectful. They let them in,” said Emad Nafa, a 52-year-old among the protesters, who for days had showered the military with affection for its neutral stance.

Some of the worst street battles raged near the Egyptian Museum at the edge of the square. Pro-government rioters blanketed the rooftops of nearby buildings and hurled bricks and firebombs onto the crowd below — in the process setting a tree ablaze inside the museum grounds. Plainclothes police at the building entrances prevented anti-Mubarak protesters from storming up to stop them.

The two sides pummeled each other with chunks of concrete and bottles at each of the six entrances to the sprawling plaza, where 10,000 anti-Mubarak protesters tried to fend off more than 3,000 attackers who besieged them. Some on the pro-government side waved machetes, while the square’s defenders filled the air with a ringing battlefield din by banging metal fences with sticks.

In one almost medieval scene, a small contingent of pro-Mubarak forces on horseback and camels rushed into the anti-government crowds, trampling several people and swinging whips and sticks. Protesters dragged some riders from their mounts, throwing them to the ground and beating their faces bloody. The horses and camels appeared to be ones used to give tourists rides around Cairo.

Dozens of men and women pried up pieces of the pavement with bars and ferried the piles of ammunition in canvas sheets to their allies at the front. Others directed fighters to streets needing reinforcements.

The protesters used a subway station as a makeshift prison for the attackers they managed to catch. They tied the hands and legs of their prisoners and locked them inside. People grabbed one man who was bleeding from the head, hit him with their sandals and threw him behind a closed gate.

Some protesters wept and prayed in the square where only a day before they had held a joyous, peaceful rally of a quarter-million, the largest demonstration so far.

Egyptian Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said three people died and at least 611 were injured in Tahrir Square on Wednesday. One of those killed fell from a bridge near the square; Farid said the man was in civilian clothes but may have been a member of the security forces.

Farid did not say how the other two victims, both young men, were killed. It was not clear whether they were government supporters or anti-Mubarak demonstrators.

After years of tight state control, protesters emboldened by the uprising in Tunisia took to the streets on Jan. 25 and mounted a once-unimaginable series of demonstrations across this nation of 80 million. For the past few days, protesters who camped out in Tahrir Square reveled in a new freedom — publicly expressing their hatred for the Mubarak regime.

“After our revolution, they want to send people here to ruin it for us,” said Ahmed Abdullah, a 47-year-old lawyer in the square.

Another man shrieked through a loudspeaker: “Hosni has opened the door for these thugs to attack us.”

The pressure for demonstrators to clear the square mounted throughout the day, beginning early when a military spokesman appeared on state TV and asked them to disperse so life in Egypt could get back to normal.

It was a change in attitude by the army, which for the past few days had allowed protests to swell with no interference and even made a statement saying they had a legitimate right to demonstrate peacefully.

Then the regime began to rally its supporters in significant numbers for the first time, demanding an end to the protest movement. Some 20,000 Mubarak supporters held an angry but mostly peaceful rally on Wednesday across the Nile River from Tahrir, responding to calls on state TV.

They said Mubarak’s concessions were enough. He has promised not to run for re-election in September, named a new government and appointed a vice president for the first time, widely considered his designated successor.

They were bitter at the jeers hurled at Mubarak.

“I feel humiliated,” said Mohammed Hussein, a 31-year-old factory worker. “He is the symbol of our country. When he is insulted, I am insulted.”

The anti-Mubarak movement has vowed to intensify protests to force him out by Friday.

State TV said Vice President Omar Suleiman called “on the youth to heed the armed forces’ call and return home to restore order.” From the other side, senior anti-Mubarak figure Mohamed ElBaradei demanded the military “intervene immediately and decisively to stop this massacre.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with Suleiman to condemn the violence and urge Egypt’s government to hold those responsible for it accountable, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

___

AP correspondents Sarah El Deeb, Hamza Hendawi, Diaa Hadid, Lee Keath, Michael Weissenstein and Maggie Michael contributed to this report.

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Arab leaders keep a wary eye on Tunisia

Posted by Admin on January 22, 2011

http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/article1103937.ece

Mona El-Naggar and Michael Slackman

From the crowded, run-down streets of Cairo to the oil-financed halls of power in Kuwait, Arab leaders appear increasingly rattled by the unfolding events in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world, where men continued to set themselves on fire — two more in Egypt on January 18, and a third who was stopped.

Though the streets of Cairo, Algiers and other Arab cities around the region were calm, the acts of self-immolation served as a reminder that the core complaints of economic hardship and political repression that led to the Tunisian uprising resonated strongly across the Middle East.

“You have leaders who have been in power for a very long time, one party controlling everything, marginalisation of the opposition, no transfer of power, plans for succession, small groups running the business, vast corruption,” said Emad Gad, a political scientist at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “All of this makes the overall environment ripe for an explosion at any second.”

The differences in each country

But while there is widespread anticipation about a revolutionary contagion, particularly in Egypt and Algeria, where there have been angry and violent protests, political analysts said that each country is different, making such conclusions premature. Egypt lacks the broad and educated middle class of Tunisia, while in Algeria the middle class failed to join the angry young men in rioting, regional experts said.

In Jordan, an Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, issued a demand that the offices of prime minister and other high officials be made elective instead of appointive, as they are now. But like the other outbursts, it quickly died away.

“For all the sound and fury, it doesn’t look like much political dividend will come out of what happened in Algeria, in the short term,” said Hugh Roberts, an independent scholar and a specialist on North Africa based here. “It looks like it has gone quiet. It was a big blast of angry, hot air, but in an unfocused way, which leaves most things the same.”

So for now, the most pronounced impact from the unexpected Tunisian uprising is a lingering sense of uncertainty. That is itself either unnerving or exhilarating, depending on one’s perspective, in a region sitting on the fault lines of religious strife, political repression and economic uncertainty, experts said.

“We did not expect Tunisia to go the direction it has. Who had Tunisia on the mind a few weeks ago?” said Amr Hamzawy, research director with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “The ingredients are partially there for it to happen again, but we just do not know.”

Some Arab leaders have ordered security crackdowns to keep calm in the streets, and offered some symbolic gestures. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad backed off the imposition of austerity measures. In Kuwait, the emir doled out money.

Economic summit

In Egypt, where organisers are calling for a nationwide protest on January 25, officials struggled to project a sense of calm and normalcy, while stepping up talk of economic reform and government accountability. Arab leaders have also said they will focus on combating unemployment when they meet later this week at an economic summit meeting in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik.

Fahmy Howeidy, an Egyptian political expert and newspaper columnist, said that while he did not believe conditions were ripe for a similar uprising in Egypt, the government was keenly aware that “what happened in Tunisia has definitely created a different atmosphere. It convinced people that they can revolt in the streets, and that these regimes are not as strong or as mighty as they appear.”

Before the riots in Tunisia turned into a mass uprising against the rule of the long-time autocratic president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it appeared that either Egypt or Algeria stood a greater chance of some kind of mass public revolt. For years, both have suffered from sclerotic political systems led by aging presidents, with support from the military. For years, both have confronted protests over difficult economic conditions and widespread youth unemployment.

But Mr. Hamzawy noted that in Tunisia the middle class and the trade unions joined protests that initially broke out over economic complaints, and helped transform the discontent into calls for political change. In Egypt, where the leadership continues to rely on a decades-old emergency law that allows arrest without charge, there is a lot of room for free and critical speech, offering a safety valve for expression that did not exist in Tunisia, he said.

In Egypt, he said, the array of interests that benefit from corruption is much wider than in Tunisia, where it was restricted to a small circle around the president. That, he said, means there are more people with an interest in preserving the system. And finally, he said, the military in Tunisia was not politicised and did not have any experience in securing city streets, unlike in Egypt, where the military has risen to the government’s defence before, and most likely would again. In addition, Mr. Hamzawy said that the protests that have racked Egypt recently have mostly been by workers for economic reasons, and that the government effectively bought them off with concessions before they began making political demands.

In Algeria

In Algeria, Mr. Roberts said, there are two primary differences with Tunisia that make comparisons imperfect. The first, he said, was that in Tunisia the riots spread all over the country and eventually involved different elements of society all on the same side. “That gave the movement its moral power,” he said.

By comparison, he said, “In Algeria, that never happened. There was no real support from trade unions, in fact none at all as far as one can see, and there was a good deal of middle class hostility to them because of the destruction. The guys rioting were desperate, angry young men with no political perspective at all.”

But more fundamentally, he said, Algeria is not as repressive as Tunisia was. “It is not an autocracy, it is an oligarchy,” he said, explaining that in addition to the President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, there are multiple power centres, like the military, the intelligence services and the elite bureaucrats.

That, he said, meant that unlike in Tunisia there is no one target of public ire, and no public sense that protests would help to dislodge those at fault. “Even though Bouteflika is unpopular, people know their problems do not simply come down to him,” he said. “You have a situation where there is a great deal of discontent, including in the middle class, but no one has any prescription for how to deal with it.” ( Mona El-Naggar reported from Cairo, and Michael Slackman from Berlin.) — © New York Times News Service

They appear increasingly rattled by the unfolding events in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world.

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