CAIRO – Troops pulled women across the pavement by their hair, knocking off their Muslim headscarves. Young activists were kicked in the head until they lay motionless in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Unfazed by TV cameras catching every move, Egypt’s military took a dramatically heavier hand Saturday to crush protests against its rule in nearly 48 hours of continuous fighting in Egypt’s capital that has left more than 300 injured and nine dead, many of them shot to death.
The most sustained crackdown yet 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, and 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 online 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?”
Nosseir joined the protest over her parents’ objections because she couldn’t tolerate the clashes she had seen.
“No one can approve or accept what is happening here,” she said. “The military council wants to silence all criticism. They want to hold on to power. … I will not accept this humiliation just for the sake of stability.”
Nearby in Tahrir, protesters held up newspapers with the image of the half-stripped woman 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 posted on Twitter in an address to the ruling military council.
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.”
Among those shot to death in the crackdown was an eminent 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.” 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. Military police on rooftops pelted protesters below with stones and firebombs and launched truncheon-swinging assaults to drive the crowds back.