Despite photos and video footage that show military personnel using violence against protesters, a member of Egypt’s military council addressed the media on Monday, affirming that the armed forces have exercised self-restraint in the weekend’s clashes and accused forces — which he failed to name — of plotting to instigate “chaos,” thwart the state and drive wedges between the military and the people.
In a televised news conference, Major General Adel Emara, member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), offered the generals’ version of the violence that erupted on Friday in downtown Cairo, which left at least 11 killed and more than 500 injured.
He denied reports of the military using “excessive force” against protesters, accusing the media of falsifying reports.
“The armed forces does not use violence systematically,” said Emara. “We exercise a level of self-restraint that others envy. We do not do that out of weakness but out of concern for national interests.”
The general said that violence erupted on Friday when demonstrators who had been holding a sit-in in outside the cabinet’s headquarters for the last three weeks attacked a military officer. Military personnel guarding the cabinet’s building came to the officer’s rescue, but they were subjected to “deliberate humiliation and provocation,” continued Emara, who affirmed later that the armed forces had no intention of dispersing the protest.
Later, demonstrators threw Molotov cocktails, tear gas canisters and stones at soldiers and public buildings and stormed into the courtyard of the People's Assembly building, Emara said. Eventually, the Egyptian Scientific Institute — a building that dates back to the French expedition and includes almost 200,000 rare manuscripts and books — and the Roads and Bridges Authority building caught on fire. Thugs, street children and drug addicts were implicated in the violence, he added.
To back his narrative, Emara played video footage showing people throwing Molotov cocktails on public properties. Another video depicted a teenager with blood slipping from his forehead telling an interviewer that he was hired to throw Molotov cocktails.
In the same clip, another youngster claimed that the owner of a publishing house downtown was implicated in instigating the violence. Mohamed Hashim, owner of Merit Publishing House and a left-wing activist, was known for his politically daring publications under Mubarak.
Earlier, a video showing an alleged military soldier who was wounded in the thigh and carried on a stretcher by fellow soldiers was played.
“What hurts me as a citizen and not as as a SCAF member is the scene of a young man making the victory sign after the building of the Roads and Bridges Authority was set ablaze, as if he had defeated an enemy. On the other side of the road, a solider of the same age was sacrificing his life for the the country’s sake,” said Emara.
As he was entertaining questions, Emara interrupted a reporter to announce that he had received information about a potential plot to set the building of the People’s Assembly on fire today.
According to activists and eyewitnesses, military personnel picked a fight with protesters with the intention of dispersing the sit-in, whose main demands were the firing of newly appointed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri and the transfer of power from the military to civilians.
Military personnel took to surrounding buildings to throw stones and office furniture at protesters. Soldiers in military uniforms were photographed urinating on protesters from the rooftops. In the meantime, gunshots were heard. Violence lasted until the following day as more ugly scenes emerged of soldiers beating up demonstrators with sticks and dragging a woman through the street, stripping her naked and kicking her.
Emara didn't challenge the authenticity of photos and videos showing the woman, which have gone viral in cyberspace and in the foreign media.
Yet he argued that the footage didn't prove that the military had resorted to excessive violence.
“I say yes, this scene actually happened and we are investigating it, but before you unfold the newspaper and ask me what this is and tell me this is violence, take into consideration the circumstances,” Emara said, addressing a reporter for Al Jazeera International who was sitting in the front row, unfolding a newspaper that might have had the picture Emara was referring to.
“As an Egyptian citizen I regret this photo,” Emara added. “We will disclose the investigation results in full. We do not want to conceal anything.”
The weekend’s violence brought back memories of earlier military brutality, including an attack on a Coptic-led protest in October and the dispersal of an anti-military rally in November. In the first incident, the military was held responsible for the killing of 27 people; in the second, both the armed forces and the police were blamed for the murder of at least 40.
On both occasions, the military and the state-owned media invoked conspiracy theories, using the common refrain that “hidden” hands were fomenting chaos to ruin the state and thwart the transition to democracy.
The latest clashes renewed angry demands that the military council should step down and transfer power to civilians before the remaining steps of the transitional roadmap are finished. According to the latest timetable announced last month, the military is expected to return to its barracks in the summer, after a new president is elected.
Groups of young activists have already proposed that the presidential poll be held on 25 January, the first anniversary of Egypt’s revolution, and that a civilian president be sworn in on 11 February, the same day Hosni Mubarak stepped down last year. Other pundits suggested a different path, in which the military would cede power to the speaker of the People’s Assembly as soon as the People's Assembly polls conclude on 13 January.
“We believe that the problem lies in the SCAF staying in power. Its perfomance has been faltering and will instigate chaos,” says Ahmed Osama, a volunteer with Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh’s presidential campaign.
“The SCAF is burning the country, and we have to salvage the country from its hands,” he added.