CAIRO, Egypt – Soldiers beat hundreds of protesters with clubs and fired heavy volleys of gunfire into the air in a pre-dawn attack that broke up a demonstration in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, a sign of the increasing tensions between Egypt’s ruling military and the country’s protest movement.
A force of about 300 soldiers swept into the square around 3 a.m. and waded into a tent camp in the center where protesters had formed a human cordon to protect army officers who joined their demonstration, witnesses said.
The troops dragged an unknown number of protesters away, throwing them into police trucks.
“I saw women being slapped in the face, women being kicked,” cried one female protester, who was among about 200 who fled to take refuge in a nearby mosque. Troops surrounded the mosque and heavy gunfire was heard for hours. Protesters in the mosque reported large numbers of injured, including several wounded by gunfire.
The assault came hours after tens of thousands massed in Tahrir Square on Friday in one of the biggest protests in weeks, demanding that the military prosecute ousted president Hosni Mubarak and his family for alleged corruption.
The rally was a show of the increasing impatience and mistrust that many Egyptians feel toward the military, which was handed power when Mubarak was forced out of office on Feb. 11. Some protesters accuse the military leadership of protecting Mubarak – a former military man himself – and more broadly, many are unclear on the army’s intentions in the country’s transition.
More than in previous protests, chants and banners Friday directly criticized the military’s Supreme Council, headed by Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, a former Mubarak loyalist. At one point, a group of protesters walked behind a contingent of military police in Tahrir, shouting, “The people want the fall of the field marshal,” and haranguing the soldiers until they left the square.
A number of army officers in uniform joined the protesters, some of them accusing the Supreme Council of corruption in speeches to the crowd. After dark, hundreds of protesters remained in the square, intending to camp out with the officers. Before the main assault, military police tried several times to move in and detain the officers but were pushed by protesters.
After the pre-dawn attack, the scene was chaotic. Inside the mosque, families who had camped out in the protest tent searched for children who got lost in the mayhem. Outside, protesters scuffled with soldiers on sidestreets, chanting, “Marshal, tell your soldiers, we aren’t leaving.”