BEIRUT

Middle East

Unfinished business for Egypt's Tahrir protesters

  • Riot police clash with protesters along a debris-strewn side street near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 21, 2011. Cairo police fought protesters demanding an end to army rule for a third day on Monday and morgue officials said the death toll had risen to 33, making it the worst spasm of violence since the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

  • Protesters cover their noses against tear gas thrown by riot police as they chant anti-military council slogans on a burnt car during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo November 21, 2011. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)

  • Protesters carry a wounded man during clashes with Egyptian riot police near Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. Security forces fired tear gas and clashed Monday with several thousand protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the third straight day of violence that has killed at least two dozen people and has turned into the most sustained challenge yet to the rule of Egypt's military.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

CAIRO: Egyptian protesters who braved bullets and tear gas for a third day in Tahrir Square say they have unfinished business from the uprising that ended President Hosni Mubarak's rule but left his defense minister in charge.

Many protesters seemed surprised by their own grit as they hurled themselves at riot police and soldiers guarding the nearby ministry of interior.

"Give them your backs!" they yelled when police fired rubber bullets and birdshot ricocheted off shuttered store fronts like steel rain amid the crackle of gunfire and billowing clouds of tear gas.

Ten months after they toppled Mubarak, they have gone back to the basics of the revolt that ended the dictator's three-decade rule, chanting the signature slogan of the Arab Spring: "The people want the downfall of the regime!"

"We are completing the first revolution. Some are saying this is a second revolution, but it's a continuation of the first," said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent activist with the left-wing Revolutionary Socialists.

"We managed to topple only Mubarak, but his regime and military junta are alive and well," he said.

Protests -- swiftly and brutally suppressed -- have erupted in recent months against the ruling military, headed by Mubarak's former defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. But this week's clashes are different.

On Saturday, police broke up a sit-in by the families of those killed or wounded during the 18-day revolt that overthrew Mubarak, a day after tens of thousands demonstrated in Tahrir to demand a quick transition to civilian rule.

What happened next caught everyone off guard: the police, which desperately wants to reassert its authority after collapsing in January; the military, which appears to have misjudged the public's appetite for its continuing rule; and the protesters themselves, who swarmed into Tahrir to reclaim the square.

Over the next 72 hours, Tahrir -- "Liberation" in Arabic and the epicentre of the January uprising -- reverted to the battle zone that ended Mubarak's rule.

Ambulances streamed in to remove the dead and wounded from overwhelmed field hospitals where doctors battled fatigue and tear gas from the nearby clashes.

"We are overwhelmed," said one doctor as he ran out of a field hospital near the front line of the clashes around the interior ministry.

Even as he spoke, protesters rushed towards the hospital carrying the dead and wounded as others, outraged at the sight, headed for the front lines clutching stones and petrol bombs.

Every death -- at least 23 -- boosted the swelling number of protesters, who beat back riot police and soldiers attempting to clear the square amid chants of "The people demand the execution of the field marshal."

Unlike previous anti-military clashes, the latest protests were joined by Islamist who fought alongside liberals and leftists.

"We want Tantawi to resign. We first came here to call for an amendment of the constitutional principles," a draft constitution proposed by the military-appointed cabinet, "but they escalated by attacking the protesters," said Hatem al-Saber, an accountant.

Unlike during the January revolt, which immobilized the capital for weeks, the protesters can only hope that they will be joined by the millions of average Egyptians who tore down Mubarak's government.

Some of the country's most influential political players, such as the powerful Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, have yet to throw in their lot with the protesters.

The Brotherhood hopes to become the largest bloc in parliament after an election that starts on November 28, and it appears worried that the ongoing unrest might delay the victory it has been preparing for.

And the military -- which has promised to hand over power to an elected president some time in 2012 -- is still viewed by many as the last bulwark separating the country from chaos.

Hamalawy said he expected more Egyptians to join the protests, as they did in January, but he could not tell when that would happen.

"No one knows when it is going to happen. But it is inevitable. The reasons for the revolution are still there," he said.

 
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