CAIRO — Troops pulled women across the pavement by their hair, knocking off their Muslim headscarves, and slapped a middle-aged woman in the face repeatedly Saturday. Young activists were kicked in the head until they lay motionless in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
Egypt's military is using a dramatically heavier hand to crush protests against its rule in nearly 48 hours of continuous fighting in Egypt's capital that has left nine dead, many of them shot to death, and more than 300 injured.
The overt use of force, caught on TV and activist cameras, is likely a sign that the generals who took power after the February ouster of Hosni Mubarak are confident that the Egyptian public is on its side after two rounds of widely acclaimed parliament elections, that Islamist parties winning the vote will stay out of the fight while pro-democracy protesters become more isolated.
Still, the generals risk turning more Egyptians against them, especially from outrage over the abuse of women. Photos and video posted on the web showed troops pulling up the shirt of one woman protester in a conservative headscarf, leaving her half naked as they dragged her in the street.
"Do they think this is manly?" Toqa Nosseir, a 19-year old student, said of the attacks on women. "Where is the dignity?"
"No one can approve or accept what is happening here," said Nosseir, who joined the protest despite her parents' objections because she couldn't tolerate the scenes. "The military council wants to silence all criticism. They want to hold on power ... I will not accept this humiliation just for the sake of stability."
Nearby In Tahrir, protesters held up newspapers with the woman's image on the front page to passing cars, shouting sarcastically, "This is the army that is protecting us!"
"Are you not ashamed?" leading reform figure and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote in a Tweet addressed to the ruling military council, referring to the image and others of women being beaten up.
Also, among those shot to death in the crackdown was an imminent cleric from Al-Azhar, Egypt's most respected religious institution. At the funeral Saturday of the 52-year-old Sheik Emad Effat, thousands chanted "Retribution, retribution," and some of them marched from the cemetery to Tahrir to join the clashes.
The main street between Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protests, and the parliament and Cabinet buildings where the clashes began early the previous morning looked like a war zone Saturday. The battles saw military police on rooftops pelting protesters below with stones and firebombs and launching truncheon-swinging assaults to drive the crowds back.
Flames leaped from the windows of the state geographical society — a treasure trove of antique scientific books — it was hit by firebombs in the melee. Some youths tried to rescue books from the fire. Young activists put helmets or buckets on their heads or grabbed sheets of concrete and even satellite dishes as protection against the stones hailing down from the roofs. The streets were strewn with chunks of concrete, stones ,broken glass, burned furniture and peddlers' carts as clashes continued to rage after nightfall Saturday.
The clashes began early Friday with a military assault on a 3-week-old sit-in outside the Cabinet building by protesters demanding that the military hand over power immediately to civilians. It was the most sustained crackdown in months by the military. More than a week of heavy fighting erupted in November, leaving more than 40 dead — but that was largely between police and protesters, with the miltiary keeping a low profile.
In the afternoon, military police charged into Tahrir, swinging truncheons and long sticks, briefly chasing out protesters and setting fire to their tents. Footage broadcast on the private Egyptian CBC television network showed soldiers beating two protesters with sticks, repeatedly stomping on the head of one, leaving the motionless bodies on the pavement.
They trashed a field hospital set up by protestersand swept into buildings from which television crews were filming from and confiscated their equipment and briefly detained journalists. They tossed the camera and equipment of an Al-Jazeera TV crew off the balcony of a building from which they were filming the mayhem.
A journalist who was briefly detained told The Associated Press that he was beaten up with sticks and fists while being led to into the parliament building, where troops were holding protesters.
Inside, he saw a group of detained young men and one woman. Each was surrounded by six or seven soldiers beating him or her with sticks or steel bars or giving electrical shocks with prods.
"Blood covered the floor, and an officer was telling the soldiers to wipe the blood," said the journalist, who asked not to be identified for security concerns.
The military's stepping into the fore suggested it now felt emboldened. Two rounds of voting — last weekend and in late November — have been held for Egypt's lower house of parliament, and millions of Egyptians turned out for the freest and fairest elections in the country's modern history. The generals appear to be betting that Egyptians engaged in elections have had enough of the multiple protests since Mubarak's fall and want quiet.
One man arguing with activists in the square said he opposes protests. "Elections were the first step. This was a beginning to stability," said Ahmed Abdel-Samei, 29. "Now we are going 10 steps back."
Noor Noor, an activist who was beaten up trying to protect a woman protester grabbed by troops, said the public is "addicted to stability or the illusion of it."
"But in time, it will be hard for the army to cover everything up."
The military shrugged off criticism from a civilian advisory panel that it created only last week to show it was consulting with others. The generals gave no comment after the panel announced it was suspending its operations in protest and demanded the army apologize for the violence. At least nine people have been killed and around 300 people injured in the two days of clashes, according to the Health Ministry.
"The military council is either fed up or lacks vision in dealing with protests. It's unbelievable what is happening; the revolution was meant to give us freedom," said Aboul-Ela Madi, a member of the panel who resigned.
Amid the protests, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Islamist Salafis focused on following vote counting from the most recent round of elections. The groups have emerged as the biggest winner so far and likely do not want to do anything that would disrupt the voting, which continued until March. The Brotherhood has called for the military to apologize but has not urged supporters to join the protests.
"Islamists went after their own interests. The ballot boxes are their interests," said Ahmed Hussein, a 35-year-old protester. He accused the military of trying to prolong the transition to ensure protection from from civilian scrutiny.
Egypt's new, military-appointed interim prime minister defended the military, denying it shot protesters. He said gunshot deaths were caused by other attackers he didn't identify. He accused the protesters of being "anti-revolution."
As night fell in Tahrir, clashes continued around a concrete wall that the military erected to block the avenue from Tahrir to parliament.
Aya Emad told Associated Press that troops dragged her by her headscarf and hair into the Cabinet headquarters. The 24-year-old said soldiers kicked her on the ground, an officer shocked her with an electrical prod and another slapped her on the face, leaving her nose broken and her arm in a sling.
Mona Seif, an activist who was briefly detained during violence Friday, said she saw an officer repeatedly slapping a detained old woman in the face.
"It was a humiliating scene," Seif told the private TV network Al-Nahar. "I have never seen this in my life."
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