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Parties clash during Egyptian protests

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"I hate him very much, I hate this government!" Kifiya member Nermine Abadi, 35, shouted over the din. "I want Mubarak to go away ... I want a revolution!"

by Betsy Hiel

Tribune Review

26 May

AIRO, Egypt -- In the worst street violence between political parties in years, supporters of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beat protesters urging a boycott of Wednesday's constitutional referendum.

At several protests in central Cairo, as many as 200 black-clad riot police surrounded dozens of Kifiya (Enough) movement members, then allowed hundreds of pro-Mubarak demonstrators to attack them.

The referendum amendment would allow Egypt's first multi-party presidential election. It is the cornerstone of Mubarak's political-reform agenda, in response to calls for more democracy in the region.

Opposition leaders say the amendment is so superficial and restrictive that only a candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party can win.

Mubarak, 77, has ruled Egypt for 24 years. He is widely expected to run for and win re-election in September.

Full referendum results likely will take days, due to hand-counting of paper ballots.

Around Cairo, posters encouraging Egyptians to vote hung beside pro-Mubarak images outside polling places. At an all-female polling station at a school on Qasr El-Eini Street, women who said they work for the government cast ballots.

"We love our country and we love our president," said Mona Itowani, a transportation ministry worker. "We want our country to be safe and stable like developed countries. When people say 'no' to this referendum, they don't love their country."

At another poll, Mohammed Ali Hasan, 72, said he "voted for the future of my children" and called the referendum a first step toward democracy: "You have to put the first foot down and then move to the second level, and then the third level."

Just off Saad Zaghoul Square near the tomb of Saad Pasha, an Egyptian independence hero, riot police surrounded 30 to 40 Kifaya members holding signs -- "Enough Unemployment," "Enough Poverty," "Enough of the Dictatorship" -- and chanting "Down, Down, Mubarak!"

Soon, hundreds of pro-Mubarak supporters and NDP members descended, clapping and chanting "With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Oh Mubarak!" and "Get out, you agents of the Americans!"

As the two sides counter-chanted, NDP supporters snatched and ripped apart Kifaya posters.

"I hate him very much, I hate this government!" Kifiya member Nermine Abadi, 35, shouted over the din. "I want Mubarak to go away ... I want a revolution!"

Sonalla Ibrahim, a renowned Egyptian writer and Kifaya member, added: "We are not going to have any real changes until we change this regime."

With the confrontation turning more violent, Kifiya members fell back. NDP supporters followed, cornering several in a pharmacy and threatening to kill them, a witness said.

Other Kifiya members re-grouped on the steps of the downtown Journalists Syndicate, again chanting anti-Mubarak slogans, surrounded by hundreds of riot-police. As the pro-Mubarak crowd pushed up the steps toward them, they shouted: "These are thugs!"

The pro-NDP crowd dragged many down the steps, beating them with hands, sticks or cardboard Mubarak posters. Some in the frenzied crowd beat a woman and tore at her clothing; others set fire to Kifaya posters and banners, wiping their shoes with one burnt yellow banner.

Security police told ten Kifaya members to take refuge in a narrow alcove, one of them, Rebab Al-Mahdi, recalled afterward. The 30-year-old woman said riot police formed a line to block their path, then "opened one side, and all the NDP people came in. I said to one of the security officers, 'If I'm a criminal, arrest me -- but don't leave me to die.' The NDP thugs hit me with sticks and with their hands, and they sexually assaulted me."

She said the mob torn open her clothing and grabbed her flesh, calling her a prostitute. She fell to the ground and curled into a ball for protection, before slipping away and fleeing in a taxi.

"They showed the world their ugly face all the way," she said later. "They usually rough us up, but not to that extent."

Police pushed back foreign and Egyptian journalists who saw the attacks against Al-Mahdi and others. One Egyptian journalist asked a security officer, "Are your orders to let them slaughter them?"

"Yes, these are our orders," the officer replied.

Beyond the edge of the melee, NDP secretary Magdy Allam described the scene as simple "friction."

"We cannot accept that the international media thinks that Kifiya represents the Egyptian street," he declared. "No, they are the minority. We are against any violence and against any attacks on the opposition." He insisted his party will suspend any member guilty of violence.

Earlier, some Kifaya members held out money to NDP marchers, believing they were paid to turn out. Two young men carrying Mubarak placards admitted they were given 20 Egyptian pounds ($3.50), a quarter of a chicken, and a Pepsi to join the march.

"I am with the Al Ghad (Tomorrow) party," said one, "but I came here because I need the money." He described himself as 28 and unemployed.

Hisham Kassem, who publishes a daily independent newspaper, said Egyptians greatly distrust referendums. But the veteran human-rights advocate said the police response and pro-Mubarak mob action show the government is "terrified because there is rising dissent all over the country" that it feared was "capable of influencing" the referendum.

"It is a message for all who dissent that they are going to get nasty," he explained. "I don't understand how they can't see that this will get worse."

Negad Borai, a lawyer and democracy activist, accused officials of "immoral methods."

"They are fighting their last battle," he declared. "We have our beliefs and we can fight too. It is a battle between good and evil and, as they say in the movies, good will win in the end."

Betsy Hiel


Created by keza
Last modified 2005-06-25 09:01 AM

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