By Reem Abdellatif
CAIRO: Armed men attacked a demonstration heading from Tahrir to the Ministry of Defense on Saturday leaving over 55 injured.
A crowd estimated at around 10,000 people set out from downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square but was stopped from reaching the military headquarters in the eastern Abbasiya neighborhood by a line of army barricades. Along the way, they chanted slogans against the military council’s delay in implementing their demands.
Bands of men armed with knives and sticks set upon them from side roads, setting off pitched street battles in which both sides threw punches and hurled rocks. Gunfire was heard, but it was unclear who was shooting.
Riot police fired tear gas at protesters.
One petrol bomb landed near a protester, setting his clothes on fire, and dozens of injured were treated by ambulance crews on the scene.
The health ministry, in a statement carried by the official MENA news agency, said 55 people were injured in the clashes, including six who needed hospital treatment. Other unofficial reports put the number closer to 70-100.
It was not clear who the attackers were. Similar groups of men have tried to break up other protest rallies, and Mubarak’s regime often used hired thugs to attack protesters. Some witnesses said they might have been residents or shopkeepers angry at the loss of business as a result of the protests.
Sara El Khalili, among the protesters claimed that those attacking them were thugs who threw rocks and broken glass bottles as they yelled at protesters to get out of the neighborhood.
Eight army tanks blocked the entrance to Abbasiya Bridge. As violence escalated, the army fired live rounds in the air, according to protesters.
Another protester located in the heart of the clashes told Daily News Egypt they were surrounded and unable to leave the area near the Nour Mosque, located at the foot of the Abbasiya Bridge.
“We were surrounded here by army tanks and thugs, there were several with us injured and we couldn’t leave,” said Ahmed El Massry, an activist.
El Massry said they were attacked with tear gas but were able to escape after finding an exit behind the mosque.
Eyewitnesses said the Imam of the mosque used the microphone to call upon the army to protect the protesters.
There were chaotic scenes as army loyalists, all civilians, climbed onto the roofs of buildings and threw rocks at the protesters.
Soldiers and riot police lined a main street in Abasseya while army loyalists blocked other streets in the area, trapping protesters in the middle.
A military official told state television that “the armed forces have dealt with restraint, despite the fact that Tahrir protesters were pelting the army with stones and bottles.”
Participants of the march have denied such accusations.
The protesters were demanding that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces a provide a clear timeline of its plans to fulfill the “demands of the revolution.”
On top of these demands on Saturday was the call for the end of military rule and a smooth transition to a civil government.
Some called for the end of military tribunals for civilians, while others chanted for the removal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawy, Egypt’s de facto president and Commander of the Armed Forces.
A mother of a protester who has been imprisoned since Feb. 3, a week before Hosni Mubarak stepped down, was at the protest demanding the release of her son.
“Tantawy promised us my son would return to me safely,” said Abla Farouk “What I ask for today is my son to be allowed to spend Ramadan with us.”
She said her son was taken into custody at the military prison and is currently located in Wadi El Gedeed, or New Valley Prison, south of the Western Desert.
A similar march heading to the Ministry of Defense from Tahrir Square a day earlier was also dispersed violently by what some protesters alleged were residents of Abbasiya accompanied with thugs.
Later on Friday night, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a statement on its official Facebook page accusing members of the April 6 Youth Movement of causing a rift between the people and the army.
Rasha Azab, an activist and journalist who was at the protest, pointed out the thousands participating in Saturday’s march are not thugs, but citizens with rightful demands.
“Every time a SCAF general makes a speech, they further prove that they are completely out of tune with the people, just like Mubarak,” she said. “The legitimacy is with these people. SCAF needs to realize this; we are citizens, not thugs.”
In a phone call this morning with Egyptian satellite channel Dream 2, General Hassan El Roweni, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces, said that in Saturday’s march April 6 youth would be accompanied with thugs, therefore security officials would have to take “necessary measures.”
Ahmed Hassan, an activist, questioned the army’s statement, adding that it is instigating violence and turning people against protesters and members of the April 6 Movement.
“How should I trust this army to protect our country when they are turning our own fellow Egyptians against us with statements like these,” he said.
“Today we were treated just like state security and police treated us on Jan. 28 and the Battle of the Camel [Feb. 2] … there is no difference between Mubarak and the SCAF.”
Over 20 groups have called for Saturday’s march, which fell on July 23 marking the 59th anniversary of the 1952 revolution, or the army coup that ousted the monarchy.
Protesters emphasized the significance of the day to point out that it would mark the end of military rule. –Additional reporting by agencies.