CAIRO (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters turned their anger on the army on Saturday demanding that Egypt’s ruling military council hand power to civilians and pressing for former President Hosni Mubarak to be put on trial.
The army, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak was forced out of office on February 11, has become a growing target for a hardcore of protesters who say the generals are colluding with remnants of Mubarak’s network and thwarting calls for a deeper purge.
“The military council is part and parcel of the corrupt regime. It is made up of heads of the army that have benefited from Mubarak and his 30 years of robbing the Egyptian people,” said Abdullah Ahmed, 45, a protester in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The army dismisses such charges and says it is guarding against any attempt by former officials to undermine reforms.
Protester ire was fueled on Saturday after the army tried to clear demonstrators from Tahrir during curfew hours from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. Troops and police used tasers and batons. Sounds of gunshots rang out across the square overnight.
Medical sources said two men died out of 15 wounded by gunshots. The army said it only fired blanks and its operation caused no deaths. State television said one person was killed and 71 were wounded in acts of rioting, without giving details.
It was not clear if there were any other armed people in the square when the shots were fired.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had packed into Tahrir on Friday in the biggest protests since February 18, when millions turned out across Egypt to celebrate Mubarak’s downfall.
CHANTS AGAINST ARMY COUNCIL
The army met opposition when it tried to rid the square of a few thousand hardy protesters who stayed late into Friday night.
“Thank God, we resisted them (the army), and we are still here,” said one protester in Tahrir, which was the epicenter of demonstrations that pushed Mubarak out on February 11.
Hundreds were still in Tahrir by early on Saturday morning. Those numbers rose to several thousand later in the day. “Why is the army beating us? Why is the army firing at us?” protesters chanted overnight when the army moved in, a witness reported.
Some protesters want the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to hand power to a civilian council and have called for the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the army council. He has stayed on as defense minister after serving for two decades in that post under Mubarak.
“Either Field Marshal Tantawi puts these people — Mubarak, Gamal (his son), and the others — on trial, or he leaves his post and lets someone else do it. The slowness of the process makes people suspicious that the army (leadership) might be implicated,” said Ashraf Abdel-Aziz, 36, a shop owner.
In scenes reminiscent of the height of protests against Mubarak, three burned-out army vehicles were left in the square. Some protesters, angry at the army’s tactics, hurled rocks at the smoldering hulk of one of the army trucks.
“The army is in a tough position. What happened Friday was a result of the army’s mismanagement of how to steer the revolution forward, but not complicity with the old Mubarak regime,” said Hasan Nafaa, a political science professor who was active in mobilizing the protest movement.
“The army is trying to make a balance between carrying out reforms, purging the old system and maintaining economic and political stability. The army knows well that many key people from Mubarak’s era control the economy and have deep roots in society. It is therefore taking measured steps,” Nafaa said.
Many ordinary Egyptians are tired of the protests that have hurt the economy and want an end to the disruption.
The ruling military council said police and soldiers had “confronted acts of rioting and implemented a curfew” without causing any loss of life and blamed disturbances on “elements outside the law in Tahrir,” the state news agency reported.
The council also said on its Facebook page it had ordered the detention of Ibrahim Kamel, a senior member in Mubarak’s party, for “incitement and thuggery by some of his associates that stirred up the people in Tahrir Square” on Friday.
The council said it would “continue with firmness to seek out remnants of the previous regime and National Democratic Party” involved in such acts in order to maintain security.
The military has enjoyed broad support since it took control, but complaints against its rule have grown.
“We condemn the intentional slowness of the military council in meeting demands of the revolution and call on Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square and stay until Mubarak and his followers are arrested and tried,” the coalition of youth groups, which drove the initial anti-Mubarak protests, said in a statement.
“We want the army and the system to be purged of all corrupt complicitous officials who want to stop the revolution in its tracks,” said Mohamed Noubi, 23, a protester in Tahrir.
Some protesters took barbed wire that had been left unused by the army on Saturday and dragged it across roads leading to the square. As they had done during protests to oust Mubarak, demonstrators started checking IDs of those entering Tahrir.
“We will not leave here again until they take tangible steps to put Mubarak and high officials on trial,” said Mohamed Abdul-Karim, 31, a lawyer. He said he was a member of a committee to protect the rights of people injured in protests.
Mubarak and his family are banned from leaving Egypt. The former president, 82, is living in internal exile in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The military had forcibly dispersed protesters before from Tahrir Square. In that case, the military apologized the next day, saying there had been no order to assault the protesters and called the incident unintentional.