THOUSANDS of protesters calling for political change came under attack in Cairo yesterday evening as the Egyptian army watched on following a peaceful march to the Ministry of Defence.
Activists were surrounded by men, some armed with knives and batons, before being showered with rocks from the rooftops after their path was blocked by the army in the district of Abbasia.
The clash left 143 injured, including several children, according to one local paper, while Amnesty International reported fears of an Egyptian blogger, human rights activist and former employee, Amr Garbheia, being kidnapped who has since tweeted he was home and safe.
The identity of the armed men remains unclear but there have been consistent reports since the revolution began in January of so-called ‘thugs’ attacking unarmed protesters with sticks and knives at otherwise peaceful events.
Many of the young revolutionaries say they are paid by some authority to cause trouble, however witnesses said they believed at least some of them were local residents and business owners angry at the disturbance and loss of business the second demonstration in two days had caused.
Many Egyptians are indifferent to the revolution and want a return to normality as quickly as possible.
Earlier in the day the army’s leadership and country’s de-facto ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was accused of inflaming tensions.
In a statement it accused a key revolutionary group, the April 6 movement, of seeking to cause trouble while one of its generals said the group would be accompanied on the march by ‘thugs’ requiring security forces to take special measures, a local paper reported.
He also warned of ‘foreign elements’ intent on causing trouble.
The demonstration, which fell on the anniversary of the 1952 revolution that saw national hero Gamal Abdul Nasser come to power, started peacefully from Cairo’s central plaza, Tahrir Square, at around 4.30pm.
The mixed crowd that grew in size along the route were calling for an end to military rule and for the head of the army and de-facto ruler of the country, former defence minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, to resign over his failure to meet the demands of the revolution.
However the mood changed after I went to film the army blocking the road with eight armoured vehicles and hundreds of soldiers and riot police behind barbed wire.
A group of women shouting support for Field Marshall Tantawi began accusing me of being a spy before I was questioned by several men.
One loudly claimed he had seen an Egyptian friend and I paying people to cause trouble; something that was of course not true.
As we tried to move away we were surrounded by a dozen people who attempted to drag us towards a side street as blows rained in.
My colleague later said one of the men had a knife.
As I was pulled in different directions I managed to break free with the help of a couple of activists who told me to ‘go quickly.’
I ran through the crowd causing panic and continued for 100m until I slowed when around a dozen people who must have given chase lynched me punching and hitting me with a stick as I was pulled in opposite directions.
It seemed some of them must be trying to drag me to safety but I had no idea who.
Eventually I allowed myself to be led by two young men in their 20s who pulled me towards a side-street while the crowd followed when a cafe full of older men came out to help.
Meanwhile back at Abbasia Bridge witnesses later told of pitched battles with protesters unable to escape as they were surrounded by ‘thugs’.
Video footage clearly showed men with knives, sticks and petrol bombs being hurled while rocks rained down from the rooftops.
Later back at Tahrir Square dozens of people could be seen arriving bandaged up and unable to walk unaided as an angry speaker called for government buildings and Metro stations to be closed.
Protesters asked if the army was on their side how could it look on as they were attacked.
With no effective policing in Egypt since February 11 when former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down activists have relied on each other for security.
The police were pilloried after being blamed for the deaths of more than 840 protesters during the 18-day uprising that began on January 25 this year and have remained a passive force largely directing traffic and guarding buildings.
The army has said it supports the revolution and is with the people and has refrained from moving in on activists who disagree saying its leadership is more interested in protecting its dominant role in public life than overseeing a quick transition of power to democratic civilian rule.