LONDON: The historic revolutions that have rippled through the Arab world this year were in danger of eclipse on Friday night as protesters returned to the streets to profess their disgust at how the movement is being stymied by regimes old and new.
Six months after the Arab spring claimed its first dictator, the main squares of Cairo and Tunis were again alive with protest, teargas and fury at the resistance to change shown by interim authorities. In Syria activists said at least 19 people had been killed in the latest crackdown against protests that have convulsed the country for more than four months. At least seven people were killed in Yemen amid a political limbo that appears no closer to resolution. And in Jordan a heavy security presence policed pro- and anti-reform demonstrations which turned violent.
The scenes served as a reminder that little concrete progress towards reform has been made. Elections in Tunisia and Egypt have been postponed. Offers of reform in Yemen and Syria have been rejected as inadequate.
Thousands of demonstrators descended on public squares around the country to offer a “Friday of final warning” to the ruling military junta, amid fears that the revolution which toppled Hosni Mubarak is being betrayed by conservative forces.
Rallies and hunger strikes were reported from Alexandria on the Mediterranean all the way down to Luxor in the south and Suez in the east, with the main focus once again on Cairo’s Tahrir Square where a large sit-in is now over a week old.
Protesters accused the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed power in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall and promised to make way for a democratically-elected civilian government later this year, of stifling revolutionary demands and working to shield elements of the old regime.
“As many have been saying on Facebook, the relationship between the people and SCAF is the same as the relationship between a wife and a husband who she knows is being unfaithful,” said Shady Alaa El Din, a demonstrator in Tahrir.
“At first we lied to ourselves, we wanted to believe they were with us. But now the street has woken up and it is saying to SCAF ‘we are the rulers, and you follow our orders — not the other way round. We are the red line, you do not cross us’.”
In common with most protesters, El Din was infuriated this week by an address from SCAF spokesman General Mohsen El-Fangari, in which he warned against those seeking to “disrupt public order” and adopted a tone reminiscent of Mubarak in his final speeches to the nation. Pressure is now mounting on interim prime minister Essam Sharaf, who appears unable or unwilling to force through meaningful policy changes in the face of the generals’ intransigence and is now being urged to resign by many of his original supporters.
For anyone new to the Tunisian capital, it was almost as though the past six months had never happened. Balaclava-wearing riot police armed with batons, teargas launchers and dogs squared up against a small crowd of demonstrators who had gathered to express a sentiment widely felt in the city: that the revolution has run into the sand, stymied by a caretaker administration that they say has done little to implement revolutionaries’ demands.
The central government square or Qasbah was protected by coils of barbed wire and armoured vehicles, as demonstrators waving Tunisian flags chanted “peaceful, peaceful”. Then the trouble started. The first gas canister spewed a thick white smoke and was quickly followed by many others. Protesters ran for cover into dark shadows against a white gas screen.
Two men held their ground, kneeling bare-chested and facing the charging police. A third stopped a canister that whirled past, picked it up and threw it back at police lines. As the fumes dispersed, the demonstrators returned, their numbers now swelled into the hundreds. Some began pelting police with small rocks.
“The people who tortured me are still there,” said Malek Khudaira pointing at the ministry where he was held for 10 days during the uprising that toppled the former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
“How can I feel there is change and it’s a full revolution if everything is the same, I see those torturers walking in the streets every day.”
For hours a game of attack and counter attacked ensued. Demonstrators would march, police would fire hails of canisters into their midst. One man in black trousers, white shirt and sunglasses stood facing the police when they fired a small canister point blank at his belly. He fell where he stood. Others helped him away.
The organisers labelled Friday’s event as “the Qasbah 3”. Number 1 was the uprising that toppled Ben Ali and forced him to flee and number 2 was the sit-in that toppled the first caretaker government a month later.
Activists reported at least 19 deaths across Syria and dozens of injuries as people gathered for the main weekly prayers, which have been used as a launching pad for dissent for more than four months.
Heavy clashes took place in parts of the capital, according to activists and state media, who offered widely diverging accounts.
At least seven protesters were shot dead in neighbourhoods of Damascus as some of the largest crowds since the uprising poured on to the streets.
Security forces have generally used batons and teargas in Damascus to avoid inflaming protests in the heartland of the regime’s power. Elsewhere, scores of wounded were reported in the cities of Aleppo, Deraa, Idleb and Homs.
Syrian officials again blamed armed gangs for the violence — an indirect reference to Islamists who it claims are trying to ignite sectarian chaos. However, activists said unarmed demonstrators were again attacked by soldiers firing live rounds.
The use of violence has been unpredictable, changing by week and location. In Homs, one resident in the well-off neighbourhood of Inshaat said security forces appeared to be trying to avoid deaths. “They have been shooting but seemed to be aiming at the legs.”
Two of the biggest protests took place in Hama and Deir Ezzor, on a day when activists estimated that up to 1 million people may have openly defied the regime nationwide.
Ten people, mostly journalists, were injured on Friday when Jordanian police tried to intervene in clashes between pro-reform demonstrators and government supporters in Amman.
Hundreds of protesters calling for political changes and an end to corruption gathered in the centre of the capital but it was not clear whether they would ignore official warnings against holding a sit-in of the types seen in Egypt and Bahrain.
Jordan has seen sporadic unrest since January but only on a small scale. Opposition demands — supported by youth groups, civil society organisations and Islamists — are for changes within the framework of the Hashemite monarchy. King Abdullah has pledged to pursue reforms that would allow the formation of future governments based on an elected parliamentary majority but gave no date.
The slogan “the people want the reform of the regime” was in striking and deliberate contrast to demands elsewhere for the “overthrow” of rulers.
The Amman protest was held with a heavy security presence, with police, gendarmerie and special forces surrounding the area, the Ammon News website reported.
Rallies for reform and against “rampant corruption” also drew hundreds of demonstrators in the southern cities of Tafileh, Maan and Karak, and in Irbid and Jerash in the north.—Dawn/Guardian News Service
Ghaith Abdul Ahad, Jack Shenker, Nour Ali and Martin Chulov also contributed to this story