Egypt: Street Fights at the Steps of the Presidential Palace

December 6, 2012

The following post is from Amnesty International’s Egypt team. 

Demonstrators and security forces outside the presidential palace ©Amnesty International
Demonstrators and security forces outside the presidential palace. ©Amnesty International

When he took office just a few months ago Mohamed Morsi promised to be the president of all Egyptians.

But hopes that he would take steps to resolve the current situation and give up the wide-ranging powers that triggered this latest crisis have been dashed after a bitter and bloody night of clashes between the president’s opponents and supporters.

The clashes followed an attack by the president’s supporters – believed to be largely made up of members of the Muslim Brotherhood – on a sit-in staged by his opponents outside the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis.

Sahar Mohamed Talaat, a Radio France International worker, was attacked by pro-Morsi men in plain clothes who punched and kicked her on the ground and beat her with batons.

As a result she suffered bruises to the back and chest and potentially a fractured nose. Several female activists were also reportedly beaten or slapped in the clashes.

Last night we watched as the two groups confronted each other at Roxy Square by the palace, separated by a thin buffer zone of riot police. Both sides hurled insults, stones and Molotov cocktails.

On several occasions, the riot police fired tear gas into the packed crowds, triggering panicked stampedes but doing little to defuse the situation. We also heard the sound of gunshots.

Later, we visited a field hospital set up in the nearby Evangelical Church.

In just a couple of hours, a place of worship had been transformed into a working medical support centre, with doctors on hand to provide first aid and emergency treatment to the injured.

Volunteers were keeping records of those admitted and handing out food and drinks.

A spokesperson told us they had received 30 cases of injuries, mostly cuts, but also some more serious injuries, including broken bones and wounds caused by shotgun pellets.

One was trainee reporter Ahmed Abdel Badei, who we met while he was being treated for shotgun wounds to his right eye and face. He told us he had been watching the events from the side of the president’s supporters when he was shot, apparently by the other side.

We also found Tamer Mourad, a tourist guide who said he had earlier tried to intervene to defuse the situation and stop the clashes. Instead, he found himself caught in the middle of the two groups and was hit by a stone. The cut needed eight stitches.

It was a scene reportedly played out in several cities across Egypt last night. At the time of writing, five people are understood to have died and about 500 were injured in Cairo according to the Ministry of Health.

Several offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party were set on fire in Port Said, Ismailia, Alexandria and other cities.

It was hard to imagine that only the night before the same streets had seen a peaceful demonstration.

On Tuesday night we had joined the thousands of protesters as they marched on the Presidential Palace, chanting “peaceful, peaceful” as the riot police withdrew before them. We saw Egyptians of all ages, men, women and children.

They were calling on the president to give up a new decree which gives him wide-ranging powers, and to reject a draft constitution rushed through the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, despite the fact that the assembly has been boycotted by many political parties and groups.

As more protesters entered the surrounding streets, we saw the riot police return to fire tear gas to try and disperse them, before melting away once more, this time abandoning equipment and even an armoured truck as they went.

Yet despite Tuesday’s massive peaceful protest and last night’s violent unrest, there is no sign that the authorities are prepared to take steps to calm the situation, or to avoid further confrontation.

Instead, the vice-president has announced they are preparing to press ahead with a constitutional referendum on December 15, a move likely to increase tensions further.

Today, the presidential guards’ tanks are back on the streets of Cairo. The army has been deployed outside the presidential palace, an ominous and deeply worrying sign of things to come. Few expected this crisis to be resolved quickly.

But the authorities have not given any indication that they are willing to budge at all, and, today, the divisions seem more entrenched than ever.

More anti-Morsi marches were organized today to the Presidential palace in reaction to the events yesterday, while further mobilization is expected on Friday.