Cairo Crackdown: Weekend of Violence Casts Shadow over Egypt's Elections, Army Rule

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Amr Abdullah Dalsh / Reuters

Protesters gesture to try to stop clashes with army soldiers at cabinet offices near Tahrir Square in Cairo December 18, 2011.

It was another case of brutal abuse at the hands of Egyptian security forces that sparked this weekend's wave of deadly and ongoing clashes in downtown Cairo, deepening the country's political crisis as it heads to the polls in the first free elections, and underlining that one of the revolutionaries' key demands — security sector reform — has yet to be fulfilled.

Aboudi Ibrahim, a 22-year-old protester who was camped out at a peaceful, three-week-long sit-in outside the government cabinet building near Cairo's iconic Tahrir square, was reportedly detained and viciously beaten by the army in the early hours of December 16.

The sight of his wounds — including severe bruising, eyes swollen shut, and a face caked with blood — roused protesters to clash with the army, whose generals now rule the country, for three straight days along one of Cairo's main arteries. At least 10 protesters have been killed, including a religious scholar from Al-Azhar, the premier institute of Sunni Islam. More than 300 have been wounded in the protracted street battles that have seen Molotov cocktails, live ammunition, and even fireworks launched from each side.

"What happened yesterday is a big crime, and I completely reject the tactics of the army," said Sheikh Hisham Attya, a cleric at Al-Azhar. "Al-Azhar will take a stand against these crimes, and we will not stop protesting until our revolution against the regime is complete."

The developments cast serious doubt on the ability of the current parliamentary elections to bring stability or address the country's most divisive political grievances.

Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces, a coterie of generals who assumed power in the wake of the popular uprising in February, has consistently sought to curb the influence of any new civilian government.

But the weekend's violence also highlighted the growing rift between the tactics of those benefiting from the electoral process — including the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has swept the first two rounds of staggered parliamentary elections — and the protester youth.

"The protesters at the cabinet were expressing their opposition to the cabinet of [army appointed] Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri," a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamal Himdan, said.

"But we oppose this. The Cabinet will only be in power until the presidential elections, so we stay away from these types of events," he continued. "Still, we place full responsibility on [the Supreme Council of Armed Forces] and the military for the escalation in violence."

The third round of legislative polls will be held on January 4, and activists are worried that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party will not push the army, which continues to rule the country, to implement serious reform.

"The army was involved more than the police in more violent break-ups of protests since January" when the first anti-government protests began, said Karim Medhat Ennarah, security sector researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo-based organization. "But the topic of reforming the army, or the entire security sector for that matter, is sensitive and extremely political at the moment."

When the army took to the streets during the popular revolt to oust decades-long dictator Hosni Mubarak, protesters welcomed the soldiers as heroes rescuing them from the brutality of the police.

But the army has since presided over a volatile and oppressive transition period that appears to be worsening. Over the weekend, army soldiers and military police were seen beating and stripping veiled women on the street, firing handguns into the crowd and urinating on protestors from rooftops.

On Sunday afternoon, the army retreated and the reviled riot police were called in to help quell the clashes.

Activists circulated photos and videos of police and army violence on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, expressing outrage at the harsh methods used on civilian protesters.

"The break-ups are becoming increasingly more violent and indiscriminate," Ennarah said. This time, [the tactics] are really violent and petty. And they will continue to get more violent because the protesters won't back down either." Sheikh Attya, the Al-Azhar cleric who called on SCAF to resign from power immediately, said he believes this weekend's clashes and more recent violence in Cairo will likely evolve into another revolt against the military regime, only this time more bloody. "I cannot say how this will all finish," he said. "But right now, I see no end in sight."