CAIRO — Troops pulled women across the pavement by their hair, knocking off their Muslim headscarves. Young activists were kicked in the head until they lay motionless in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Unfazed by TV cameras catching every move, Egypt’s military took a dramatically heavier hand Saturday to crush protests against its rule in nearly 48 hours of continuous fighting in Egypt’s capital that has left more than 300 injured and nine dead, many of them shot to death.
The most sustained crackdown yet is likely a sign that the generals who took power after the February ouster of Hosni Mubarak are confident that the Egyptian public is on its side after two rounds of widely acclaimed parliament elections, that Islamist parties winning the vote will stay out of the fight while pro-democracy protesters become more isolated.
Still, the generals risk turning more Egyptians against them, especially from outrage over the abuse of women. Photos and video posted online showed troops pulling up the shirt of one woman protester in a conservative headscarf, leaving her half-naked as they dragged her in the street.
“Do they think this is manly?” Toqa Nosseir, a 19-year old student, said of the attacks on women. “Where is the dignity?”
Nosseir joined the protest over her parents’ objections because she couldn’t tolerate the clashes she had seen.
“No one can approve or accept what is happening here,” she said. “The military council wants to silence all criticism. They want to hold on power ... I will not accept this humiliation just for the sake of stability.”
Nearby in Tahrir, protesters held up newspapers with the image of the half-stripped woman on the front page to passing cars, shouting sarcastically, “This is the army that is protecting us!”
“Are you not ashamed?” leading reform figure and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei posted on Twitter in an address to the ruling military council.
Egypt’s new, military-appointed interim prime minister defended the military, denying it shot protesters. He said gunshot deaths were caused by other attackers he didn’t identify. He accused the protesters of being “anti-revolution.”
Among those shot to death in the crackdown was an imminent cleric from Al-Azhar, Egypt’s most respected religious institution. At the funeral Saturday of the 52-year-old Sheik Emad Effat, thousands chanted “Retribution, retribution.” Some of them marched from the cemetery to Tahrir to join the clashes.
The main street between Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protests, and the parliament and Cabinet buildings where the clashes began early the previous morning looked like a war zone Saturday. Military police on rooftops pelting protesters below with stones and firebombs and launched truncheon-swinging assaults to drive the crowds back.
Flames leapt from the windows of the state geographical society — a treasure trove of antique scientific books — that was hit by firebombs in the melee. Some youths tried to rescue books from the fire.
Young activists put helmets or buckets on their heads or grabbed sheets of concrete and even satellite dishes as protection against the stones hailing down from the roofs. The streets were strewn with chunks of concrete, stones ,broken glass, burned furniture and peddlers’ carts as clashes continued to rage after nightfall Saturday.
The clashes began early Friday with a military assault on a 3-week-old sit-in outside the Cabinet building by protesters demanding the military hand over power immediately to civilians.
More than a week of heavy fighting erupted in November, leaving more than 40 dead — but that was largely between police and protesters, with the military keeping a low profile.
In the afternoon, military police charged into Tahrir, swinging truncheons and long sticks, briefly chasing out protesters and setting fire to their tents. Footage broadcast on the private Egyptian CBC television network showed soldiers beating two protesters with sticks, repeatedly stomping on the head of one, leaving the motionless bodies on the pavement.
They trashed a field hospital set up by protesters, swept into buildings where television crews were filming and briefly detained journalists. They tossed the camera and equipment of an Al-Jazeera TV crew off the balcony of a building.
A journalist who was briefly detained told The Associated Press that he was beaten up with sticks and fists while being led to into the parliament building. Inside, he saw a group of detained young men and one woman. Each was surrounded by six or seven soldiers beating him or her with sticks or steel bars or giving electrical shocks with prods.
“Blood covered the floor, and an officer was telling the soldiers to wipe the blood,” said the journalist, who asked not to be identified for security concerns.
The military’s violent response suggested it now felt emboldened. Two rounds of voting — last weekend and in late November — have been held for Egypt’s lower house of parliament, and millions of Egyptians turned out for the freest and fairest elections in the country’s modern history.
The generals appear to be betting that Egyptians engaged in elections have had enough of the multiple protests since Mubarak’s fall and want quiet.
One man arguing with activists in the square said he opposes protests. “Elections were the first step. This was a beginning to stability,” said Ahmed Abdel-Samei, 29. “Now we are going 10 steps back.”
The military shrugged off criticism from a civilian advisory panel that it created only last week to show it was consulting with others. The generals gave no comment after the panel announced it was suspending its operations in protest and demanded the army apologize for the violence.
At least nine people have been killed and around 300 people injured in the two days of clashes, according to the Health Ministry.
“The military council is either fed up or lacks vision in dealing with protests. It’s unbelievable what is happening; the revolution was meant to give us freedom,” said Aboul-Ela Madi, a member of the panel who resigned.
Meanwhile, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the more conservative Islamist Salafis focused on following vote counting from the most recent round of elections. The groups have emerged as the biggest winner so far and likely do not want to do anything to disrupt the voting, which continued until March. The Brotherhood has called for the military to apologize but has not urged supporters to join the protests.
“Islamists went after their own interests. The ballot boxes are their interests,” said Ahmed Hussein, a 35-year-old protester. He accused the military of trying to prolong the transition to ensure protection from civilian scrutiny.
As night fell in Tahrir, clashes continued around a concrete wall that the military erected to block the avenue from Tahrir to parliament.
Aya Emad told the AP that troops dragged her by her headscarf and hair into the Cabinet headquarters. The 24-year-old said soldiers kicked her on the ground, an officer shocked her with an electrical prod and another slapped her on the face, leaving her nose broken and her arm in a sling.
Mona Seif, an activist who was briefly detained Friday, said she saw an officer repeatedly slapping a detained old woman in the face.
“It was a humiliating scene,” Seif told the private TV network Al-Nahar. “I have never seen this in my life.”