Egyptians responding to a call for a mass rally began flowing on to Tahrir Square Tuesday while fresh clashes broke out elsewhere in Cairo as protests demanding the country’s military rulers step down entered a fourth day.
Activists are hoping to increase the number of protesters in the square which was the epicenter of the revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak in mid-February with a demonstration to bolster popular support for a “second revolution” despite bloodshed that has left at least 29 people dead.
Security forces stayed away from the square since Monday to avoid confrontations after several failed efforts to clear the area in downtown Cairo turned violent. But clashes broke out in streets connecting Tahrir Square to police headquarters, with black-clad security forces backed by military troops firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets to block groups of angry young men, who responded by hurling stones and fire bombs.
Nearly 2,000 people have been wounded in the violence that has escalated since Saturday. NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from the scene of the protests in Cairo, said rescue and medical workers on the front lines are having a hard time keeping up with the casualty rate.
The protesters in and around Tahrir Square shout slogans against the ruling military generals as wave after wave of young men surge toward the black-clad riot police, Nelson said. But the security forces do not relent. They repeatedly fire tear gas into the crowd, which leads to a steady stream of wounded.
The injured are carried by comrades on motorbikes from the front line.
At one field hospital, set up in a mosque at the edge of the square, dozens of weary volunteer medical workers triaged patients on dusty blankets spread outside.
Trauma surgeon Seif Khirfan said the staff was seeing as many as a 100 patients an hour, and that he’s seen evidence of live rounds being used.
“Well, the gunshots are the worst — especially the ones in the head, they are terrible,” Khirfan told NPR. “You see them for a very short while then you have to transfer them to a bigger hospital, but the few seconds that you actually get in contact with is really very tormenting to see.”
He added that the tear gas appears to be more toxic than what police forces lobbed during the first uprising in January:
“I think this new batch is causing a lot of nervous breakdowns and a lot of suffocation and respiratory problems,” the doctor said. “Even burning in the face. We have to put burn ointments because they get burning in the face.”
The two sides have been engaged in intense clashes since the unrest began on Saturday with protesters trying to force out the generals who have failed to stabilize the country, salvage the economy or bring democracy more than nine months after taking the reins from Mubarak.
In many ways, the protests bear a striking resemblance to the 18-day uprising beginning Jan. 25 that toppled Mubarak. The chants are identical, except that military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s name has replaced Mubarak’s.
“The goal is to get rid of the government. They’re still stealing and people can’t eat,” said protester Raed Said, 23, as he walked with an arm around his friend who was choking from the tear gas. “The field marshal has to leave because he’s trying to protect Mubarak and doesn’t want to try him, so he has to go.”
Hundreds of protesters arrived early Tuesday to join several thousand who have been camping on Tahrir Square, sleeping in tents or on the grass rolled up in blankets despite efforts by police to clear the area. The crowds hoisted a giant Egyptian flag and chanted slogans demanding the generals immediately step down in favor of a presidential civilian council.
One man held a sign reading “ministry of thuggery” with photos of Mubarak, Tantawi, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and others. A few hundred young men nearby chanted “say it, don’t fear, the council must go” and “the people want to execute the field marshal.”
The rally, dubbed “Egypt’s Salvation,” came a day after Sharaf’s civilian Cabinet submitted its resignation to the military council, a move that had been widely expected given the government’s perceived inefficiency and its almost complete subordination to the generals. The ruling military council gave no word if the offer had been accepted, but regardless, it failed to satisfy the protesters.
The clashes came few days before the country’s first parliamentary elections since Mubarak was forced to step down. Fears were high that the turmoil would disrupt elections due to begin on Nov. 28.
Amnesty International harshly criticized the military rulers in a new report, saying they have “completely failed to live up their promises to Egyptians to improve human rights.”
The London-based group documented steps by the military that have fallen short of increasing human rights and in some cases have made matters worse than under Mubarak.
“The euphoria of the uprising has been replaced by fears that one repressive rule has simply been replaced with another,” according to the report, issued early Tuesday.
The report called for repeal of the Mubarak-era “emergency laws,” expanded to cover “thuggery” and criticizing the military. It said the army has placed arbitrary restrictions on media and other outlets.
Egyptian security forces have continued to use torture against demonstrators, the report said, and some 12,000 civilians have been tried in military trials, which it called “unfair.”
A military spokesman, meanwhile, told The Associated Press that the military has set up barbed wire and barricades around the security headquarters to prevent protesters from storming the building. “We are only here to protect the interior ministry,” he said.
The spokesman, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to release the information, also said army officers and soldiers had been forbidden to enter Tahrir Square.
In violence elsewhere, Egypt’s state-TV reported that three people were killed overnight in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, east of Cairo, raising the overall death toll from the protests to 29.
The unrest also had an immediate impact on Egypt’s economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism and had not fully recovered from the effect of the January revolution. The stock exchange temporarily suspended trading after the broader EGX100 index slumped 5 percent.
NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.