The warm relations between Egyptians protesters and their army are over. Military police and, reportedly, masked special forces violently broke up protests in downtown Cairo late Friday night. The attack—and ongoing reports of "disappearances" and abuse—has soured the once hopeful relations between the military and pro-democracy forces here.
The film director Ahmad Abdalla was in a group of several hundred protesters standing and chanting in front of the Egyptian parliament late Friday night. Military officers told the group it had to leave. "But we said no, we are here protesting peacefully," says Abdalla. Then, sometime after 2 a.m., "out of the blue they came, pushing us with machine guns. And they were shocking people with tasers. We started running and they kept running after us. Many people were kidnapped and beaten."
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In a statement today, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said all detained demonstrators have been released, and that: "What happened during the demonstrations...was an unintended development between the military police and the sons of the revolution; no orders were or will be issued to attack these sons; and measures will be taken so that this doesn't repeat itself." The military blamed the attacks on "conspirators" who are trying to destroy the trust between the army and the people.
Hundreds of protesters, human rights activists and journalists have been detained by the Egyptian military since the protests began, says Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. Human Rights Watch interviewed protesters who were accused by soldiers of being "traitors" and "spies"; some were whipped with electrical cables and severely beaten.
But the abuse "hasn't been systematic," Morayef says. She suspects it's the result of the soldiers' own political sympathies; of "bad training"; and of "the overall culture—people in power use violence against people without power."
"They hit me and used electricity," she says, referring to the taser-like devices military police have used to shock protesters.
Earlier on Friday, as organizers in Tahrir Square set up a podium in front of a flag-waving crowd, some such "people without power" stood nervously nearby. The group—three young men and one young woman—had a story they both wanted, and were afraid, to tell.
After spending the night in the square—something protesters have regularly done in the last month—they and other friends had been rounded up by military police early in the morning.
Soad (she and her friends all asked that I not use their real names) is in her early twenties; when I met her she was wearing jeans, a sweater that covered her hips, and a headscarf. She says when she was dragged into a vehicle she told soldiers: "Take your hands off me."
"They hit me and used electricity," she says, referring to the taser-like devices military police have used to shock protesters. One of the military policemen told another to "teach her a lesson."
Soad and her friends had met and become friends during the protests. They are all from modest backgrounds and hadn't been involved in politics before.
They say they were taken to the grounds of the Egyptian Museum, on the edge of Tahrir Square. There have been multiple reports of protesters being held and tortured there.
They were blindfolded, handcuffed, and beaten. "I was patted down and searched," says Soad, "and sexually harassed. They used insults you wouldn't believe."
As we were speaking, the kids lowered their voice every time they caught sight of a military policeman's bright red beret in the crowd.
Ahmad said it was military police who abused him. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and looking haggard, Ahmad said: "You can't see it but I have the signs of beating all over my body. They used electricity everywhere," he said, pointing to his head, chest and legs. "They didn't ask us about anything."
Early on in the protests against President Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian army announced that it wouldn't use violence against demonstrators. Egyptians were hugely relieved and greeted the army with enthusiasm, scrawling anti-Mubarak slogan on tanks and posing for family pictures next to soldiers. A common chant throughout the protests was: "The People and the Army: One Hand."
But now that the armed forces are running the country, there is increasing unease about their intentions and methods.
"The military is in absolute control," says Morayef, which makes it dangerously unaccountable. No one who has been mistreated has had the courage to turn to the courts, and no one in the Egyptian media has dared criticize the army. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has given its blessing to the interim government headed by former air force head Ahmad Shafiq, despite the fact that—as many protesters here note—Shafiq was appointed by Mubarak and was in power at the time that state media demonized the protests and pro-government groups attacked them.
But opposition groups and the protest movement remain largely unwilling or incapable of challenging the country's military leaders, who they are still hoping will implement a long list of promised reforms. Meanwhile, the army's behavior remains an extremely sensitive subject here.
Soad had hoped to get on stage on Friday and tell the story of what happened to her. But the protest organizers wouldn't have it.
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His prediction came true just 12 hours later.
"It was complete chaos," says Mona Saif, a 24-year-old university student who was among the demonstrators on Friday night. "We saw one guy—four military policemen were holding him on the ground and using electrical stunners on him. They snatched one guy in front of us and threw him on ground behind a tank and were beating and kicking him."
The reports of military brutality are "depressing in terms of things to come," says Morayef. The army's aggressive behavior towards protesters "justifies the suspicion with which the military is viewed by a lot of activists now," she adds.
"We're used to seeing violence from the police," says Abdalla. In fact, the protest on January 25 that sparked the Egyptian uprising was against police brutality. "But from the military...it's new and horrifying."
Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer.