CAIRO — Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers swept into Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday, chasing protesters and beating them to the ground with sticks and tossing journalists' TV cameras off of balconies in the second day of a violent crackdown on antimilitary protesters that has left nine dead and hundreds injured.
The violent, chaotic scenes suggested that the military — fresh after the first rounds of parliament elections that it claimed bolstered its status as the country's rulers — was now determined to stamp out protests by activists demanding it transfer power immediately to civilians.
TV footage, pictures and eyewitnesses accounts showed a new level of force being used by the military against pro-democracy activists the past two days. Military police openly beat women protesters in the street, slap elders on the face, and pulled the shirt off of at least one veiled woman as she struggled on the pavement. Witnesses said they beat and gave electric shocks to men and women dragged into detention, many of them held in the nearby parliament or Cabinet buildings, witnesses said.
Aya Emad, a 24-year-old protester, had a broken nose, her arm in a sling, her other arm bruised. She told Associated Press that troops dragged her by her headscarf and hair into the Cabinet headquarters. She said soldiers kicked her on the ground, an officer shocked her with an electrical prod and another slapped her on the face.
With Egypt in the midst of multistage parliamentary elections, the violence threatens to spark a new cycle of fighting after deadly clashes between youth revolutionaries and security forces in November that lasted for days and left more than 40 dead. The clashes in November involved the widely disliked police force. But in a key difference, this time the police have stayed away and the crackdown is being led entirely by the military.
That could indicate a new confidence among the military that it has backing of the broader public — after elections held under its watch that saw heavy turnout, were largely peaceful and the fairest and freest in living memory.
Ahmed Abdel-Samei, who came to check on Tahrir Square, said he opposes protests. "Elections were the first step. This was a beginning to stability," the 29-year-old said. "Now we are going 10 steps back."
Noor Noor, an activist who was beaten up trying to protect Emad, said, "Public opinion is addicted or naturally inclined to favor stability or the illusion of it. But in time, it will be hard for the army to cover everything up."
The heavy-handed crackdown could galvanize the military's opponents and even some in the public who praised the army for delivering clean elections. Among those killed Friday was an eminent 52-year-old Muslim cleric from Al-Azhar, Egypt's most respected religious institution. At the funeral Saturday of Sheik Emad Effat, who was shot in the chest, hundreds chanted "Retribution, retribution," and marched from the cemetery to Tahrir.
Tahrir and streets leading to the nearby parliament and Cabinet headquarters looked like war zones. The military set up concrete walls between the square and parliament, but clashes continued.
Flames leaped from the windows of the state geographical society, which protesters pelted with firebombs after military police on the roof rained stones and firebombs down on them. Stones, dirt and shattered glass littered the streets around parliament.
Protesters grabbed helmets, sheets of metal and even satellite dishes to protect themselves from stones from troops above.
In the afternoon, troops charged into Tahrir, swinging truncheons and long sticks, 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, before leaving the motionless bodies on the pavement.
The troops swept into buildings from which television crews were filming from and confiscated their equipment and briefly detained journalists.
In one case, plainclothes officers charged up the stairs of a hotel from which Al-Jazeera TV was filming the turmoil below and demanded a female hotel worker tell them where the media crew was or else they would beat her up, a member of the Al-Jazeera crew said. "The woman was screaming and saying I don't know," the crew member said speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. The soldiers threw the Al-Jazeera crew's equipment from the balcony, including cameras, batteries and lighting equipment to the streets, landing on a sweet potato cart whose stove started a fire.
Troops also stormed a field hospital set up protesters next to a mosque in Tahrir, throwing medicine and equipment into the street, protester Islam Mohammed said.
At least nine people have been killed and around 300 people injured in the two days of clashes, the Health Ministry said.
A journalist who was briefly detained by the military forces told Associated Press that he was beaten up with sticks and fists while being led to inside a parliament building, next to Cabinet headquarters.
"They were cursing me saying 'you media are traitors, you tarnish our image and you are biased."
He also saw a group of men and one young woman being beaten: Each was surrounded by six or seven soldiers in uniform and plainclothes 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.
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, telling her to apologize for objecting to the mistreatment.
"It was a humiliating scene," Seif told the private TV network Al-Tahrir. "I have never seen this in my life.
Pictures posted online by activists during Friday's fighting showed military police dragging several women by the hair, including young activists wearing the religious headscarf. One photo showed soldiers beating up a woman who appeared in her 50s.
Tahrir was the epicenter of the 18-day wave of protests that ousted Mubarak. The military was welcomed by many when it took power and proclaimed itself a partner in and protector of the revolution. Since then, tensions with activists have swelled. In a statement Saturday, the military denied targeting "Egypt's revolutionaries," saying it was pursuing "thugs" who hurled firebombs at its forces at the Cabinet.
Egypt's new, military-appointed interim prime minister defended the security forces' response. He denied the military or police shot at protesters, saying gunfire came from an unidentified group that "came from the back and fired at protesters."
He accused the antimilitary protests that have been held for weeks outside the Cabinet building of being "anti-revolution."
In a potential embarrassment to the military, a civilian advisory panel it created this month suspended its work, demanding an immediate end to violence and a formal apology from the ruling military council. Eight of its members resigned in protest of the crackdown.
The latest round of violence touched off late Thursday after soldiers stormed the antimilitary protest camp outside the Cabinet building near Tahrir Square, expelling demonstrators demanding an end to military rule and an immediate transfer of power to a civilian authority. Witnesses said troops snatched a protester, taking him into the parliament building and beating him.
Mustafa Ali, a protester who was wounded by pellet shot in clashes last month, accused the ruling generals Saturday of instigating the violence to "find a justification to remain in power and divide up people into factions."