Thursday, February 3, 2011

Clashes in the heart of Cairo

Crackdown in Egypt Widens to Foreign Observers

Crackdown in Egypt Widens to Foreign Observers
CAIRO — The Egyptian government broadened its crackdown on Thursday to the international news media and human rights workers, in an apparent effort to remove witnesses to the battle with antigovernment protesters.

With fighting between pro- and antigovernment forces escalating throughout the day, armed supporters of President Hosni Mubarak attacked foreign journalists, punching them and smashing their equipment. Men who protesters said were plainclothes police officers shut down news media outlets that had been operating in buildings overlooking Tahrir Square.

An informal center set up by human rights workers in the square was seized, and a group of journalists was stopped in their car near the square by a gang of men with knives and briefly turned over to the military police, ostensibly for their protection. Two reporters working for The New York Times were released on Thursday after being detained overnight in Cairo.

Two Washington Post staffers were among two dozen journalists detained by the Interior Ministry on Thursday morning, the paper reported. The moves appeared to be part of a systematic effort by government security agencies to round up foreign journalists, seize their equipment and stop their reporting.

The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, condemned the Mubarak government’s harassment of journalists, calling it “completely and totally unacceptable.” Speaking to reporters traveling with President Obama, Mr. Gibbs said that “any journalist that has been detained should be released immediately.”

The concerted effort to remove journalists lent a sense of foreboding to events in the square, where battles continued between the protesters and the Mubarak supporters, who human rights workers and protesters say were being paid and organized by the government. People bringing food, water and medicine to the protesters in the square were being stopped by Mubarak supporters, who confiscated what they had and threw some of it into the Nile.

In the afternoon, the fighting spread beyond the square to the October 6th Bridge, which rises above the Egyptian Museum. Shots were heard, and a surgeon assisting the antigovernment protesters said three people were killed. “It was the police or the army, we don’t know,” said the surgeon, Mohamed Ezz. “Only they have guns.”

After the shots were fired, the army moved in to separate the combatants, witnesses reported.

That followed a night of gunfire and a day of mayhem Wednesday that left at least five dead and more than 800 wounded in a battle for the Middle East’s most populous nation. With the violence rising, the United Nations ordered the evacuation of much of its staff on Thursday, while more than 4,000 passengers made their escape through Cairo airport, The Associated Press reported.

The government offered a series of conciliatory gestures in an effort to blunt international condemnation of the bloody crackdown in Tahrir Square on Wednesday. The newly appointed prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, apologized on Thursday for the violence and vowed to investigate who had instigated it “I offer my apology for everything that happened yesterday because it’s neither logical nor rational,” he said.

The vice president, Omar Suleiman, said on state television that neither he nor the president’s son, Gamal, who some thought was being groomed to succeed his father, would be a candidate for the presidency next September.

Egypt’s public prosecutor issued a travel ban on former government ministers and an official of the National Democratic Party on suspicion of theft of public money, profiteering and fraud, state television reported. Among the four was the hated former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, who commanded a secret police force that was widely despised for its corruption and routine use of torture.

A government spokesman, Magdy Rady, denied that the authorities had been involved in the violence. “To accuse the government of mobilizing this is a real fiction. That would defeat our object of restoring the calm,” Mr. Rady told Reuters. “We were surprised with all these actions.”

Officials in Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party were at pains Thursday to absolve the president of any role in the violent crackdown Wednesday on antigovernment protesters. Speaking with one voice they blamed the violence on thugs hired by a group of rich businessmen eager to support the government.

But opposition leaders dismissed that explanation as a smoke screen, saying it was highly unlikely that anyone would take such a fateful action without the approval of the president himself.

The outcome of the widening unrest is pivotal in a region where uprising and unrest have spread from Tunisia to many other lands, including Jordan and Yemen, forcing their leaders into sudden concessions to their suddenly vocal foes and stretching American diplomacy.

In Sana, the Yemeni capital, on Thursday, thousands of protesters assembled, some for and some against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The demonstrations were peaceful, in marked contrast to the chaos that ruled in Cairo on Wednesday when Mr. Mubarak struck back at his opponents, unleashing waves of supporters armed with clubs, rocks, knives and firebombs in a concerted assault on thousands of antigovernment protesters in Tahrir Square. Calls for new protests in a number of Middle East countries were circulating on Twitter, including: Algeria, Feb. 12; Bahrain, Feb. 14; and Libya, Feb. 17.

In the clashes on Wednesday, the Egyptian military did nothing to intervene. But on Thursday for the first time, a thin line of soldiers backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers appeared to have taken up positions between the combatants and to be urging Mr. Mubarak’s supporters, numbering in the hundreds, to avoid confrontation.

For their part, several thousand antigovernment protesters, far fewer than in previous days, called for peaceful protest. “An Egyptian will not attack another,” some chanted from behind makeshift barricades thrown up to seal access to the square. “No bloodshed.”

When one man shouted an insult at a Mubarak supporter around 100 yards away, another, Mahmoud Haqiqi, told him: “Don’t say that. Stay quiet. Tell them we are here for their sake.”

After hours of bloody clashes starting on Wednesday with rocks, iron bars and firebombs into the night, the confrontation seemed to escalate early Thursday morning when the staccato rattle of automatic gunfire rang out over Cairo.

It was unclear whether the shots came from the pro-government demonstrators or from the military forces stationed in the square.

Two people were killed by the gunfire and 45 people were wounded, said a doctor at a nearby emergency clinic set up by the antigovernment demonstrators. After the initial volleys, soldiers fired into the air, temporarily scattering most of the people in the square.

More than 150 people have died in the uprising, human rights groups say.

By midmorning on Thursday, as the protesters’ numbers again began to swell, the antigovernment side held its ground in Tahrir, or Liberation, Square — the focus of the clashes — milling around and chanting slogans on the 10th day of the campaign to oust Mr. Mubarak.

Volunteers arrived carrying water, yogurt, bananas and medical supplies for the makeshift clinics that sprung up to tend the wounded. In the absence of any municipal services or authority, others tried to sweep the square of debris, using brooms, shovels and sheets of cardboard.

The violence on Wednesday and Thursday seemed to have hardened the protesters’ demands, going far beyond the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. “The people want the execution of the president,” some chanted. “Mubarak is a war criminal.”

Some low-level clashes continued, but nothing on the scale of the volleys of rocks and Molotov cocktails of the earlier fighting.

Early Thursday, the square was littered with rocks and makeshift barricades, with smoke drifting overhead. Troops guarded the Egyptian Museum, Cairo’s great storehouse of priceless antiquities dating to the time of the Pharaohs and a huge emblem of national pride.

As the fear of further clashes gripped Cairo, foreigners, including many Americans, continued their exodus.

In a statement, the American Embassy, which has ordered the compulsory evacuation of some diplomats and their families, said that more than 1,900 American citizens had been flown out of Egypt since Monday and more would leave on Thursday.

There was no indication that the antigovernment side was in a mood for retreat. On Thursday, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the biggest organized opposition group — again rejected a government offer to negotiate once the protesters had left Tahrir Square.

Essam el-Erian, a senior leader of the Islamist organization, told Reuters the movement was calling for the removal of “the regime, not the state.”

“This regime’s legitimacy is finished, with its president, with his deputy, its ministers, its party, its Parliament. We said this clearly. We refuse to negotiate with it because it has lost its legitimacy,” he said.

Only two days after the military pledged not to fire on protesters, it was unclear where the army stood. Many protesters contended that Mr. Mubarak was provoking a confrontation in order to prompt a military crackdown.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who was designated to negotiate with the government on behalf of the opposition, demanded on Wednesday that the army move in and protect the protesters. The deployment of plainclothes forces paid by Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party — men known here as baltageya — has been a hallmark of the Mubarak government, and there were many signs that the violence was carefully choreographed.

The preparations for a confrontation began Wednesday morning, a day after Mr. Mubarak pledged to step down in September while insisting that he would die on Egyptian soil. The president’s supporters waved flags as though they were headed to a protest, but armed themselves as though they were itching for a fight. Several wore hard hats, one had a meat cleaver, and two others grabbed the raw materials to make firebombs from their car.

Some of the Mubarak supporters arrived in buses. When they spoke with one another, they referred to the antigovernment protesters as foreigners or traitors, and to Mr. Mubarak as Egypt’s “father.”

Several people interviewed independently said that ruling party operatives had offered them 50 Egyptian pounds, less than $10, if they agreed to demonstrate in the square on Mr. Mubarak’s behalf. “Fifty pounds for my country!” said Yasmina Salah, 29.

David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Reporting was contributed by Kareem Fahim, Liam Stack, Mona El-Naggar and Anthony Shadid from Cairo, Michael Slackman from Berlin, and J. David Goodman from New York.

Tense calm in Tahrir Square

Pakistan politician accuses prime minister of sabotaging blasphemy law reform

Sherry Rehman, who has cut back her public appearances since the assassination of another reformer, told The Daily Telegraph she would continue her campaign despite continuing threats to her life.
"Appeasement of extremism is a policy that will have its blowback," said the Member of the National Assembly for the governing Pakistan People's Party.
The issue has cast a dark shadow over Pakistan since The Daily Telegraph revealed that a Christian mother-of-five had been sentenced to death for blasphemy.
Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab, was shot dead last month after taking up her case. His killer has received widespread support in a country where few people are prepared to risk the wrath of hardline clerics.
The government has refused to consider any amendments and critics accused ministers of isolating Rehman and Taseer days before his death.Ms Rehman drafted a bill designed to make the laws – toughened up during the military reign of General Zia ul-Haq – more difficult to use in the persecution of religious minorities.
On Wednesday, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, again insisted the government had no plans to reform the law.
He said he had told Ms Rehman that the reforms should have been discussed within the party before moving ahead and that "she agreed with me".
However, a furious Ms Rehman said she had disagreed but that bill had been killed off because the prime minister had ruled out any discussion.
"It was a question of protecting our citizens from injustice done in the name of a religion that values peace and tolerance more than anything else," she said.
The law attracted a fresh wave of condemnation this week when it emerged that a 17-year-old boy had been arrested for allegedly writing a blasphemous comment on an exam paper.

Rival Protests in Yemeni Capital

Who are the pro-Mubarak supporters?

Gunfire echoes around Tahrir Square

Gunfire has been heard near Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square where pro-democracy protesters are massed despite fierce clashes with loyalists of Hosni Mubarak, the country's embattled president.

Witnesses said that gunshots rang out from a bridge leading to the square, the epicentre of protests against Mubarak for the past 10 days, on Thursday afternoon.

An Al Jazeera correspondent, reporting from the scene, said it was not clear who was behind the firing.

There have been sporadic clashes throughout Thursday, as the army fanned out to separate the two sides and allowed thousands more protesters to enter their camp in the square.

Soldiers then stepped aside as the anti-government side surged ahead in the afternoon in resumed clashes.

With volleys of stones, the protesters pushed back their rivals who had swarmed onto a nearby highway overpass that the supporters of the regime had used as a high ground to pelt them.

At the same time, Mubarak supporters also carried out a string of attacks on journalists around the square.

'Blatant mistake'

A day earlier, Tahrir Square had witnessed fierce clashes, after Mubarak loyalists - some of them riding camels and horses - attacked the pro-democracy protesters.

Ahmed Shafiq, the Egyptian prime minister, made an unprecedented apology on Thursday for Wednesday's assault that turned central Cairo into a battle zone.

Shafiq said the attack on the anti-Mubarak protesters was a "blatant mistake" acknowledging that it was likely organised and promised to investigate who was behind it.

The pro-democracy protesters accuse the regime of organising the assault, using paid thugs and policemen in civilian clothes, in an attempt to crush their movement.

Egypt's state news agency has reported that the prosecutor-general has banned travel and frozen the bank accounts of three former ministers of the government that was sacked over the weekend, including the interior minister who was responsible for police.

The prosecutor-general said he ordered the same restrictions against a senior ruling party official until security is restored in the country.