I rushed to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on Sunday. About 500 students at Cairo University’s School of Engineering – who had declared a strike on their campus earlier that day – were flooding into the square to protest the security forces’ killing of a student, Mohamed Reda, in clashes last week. Rumor had it that many were Muslim Brotherhood supporters, massing in Tahrir for the first time in months. The interim president issued a new law on November 24 restricting public assembly, and I feared police might use the fact that the students had not applied for a permit to break up the demonstration.
The tension was palpable. Students were frantically phoning friends to urge them to come out and join them, local businesses were rolling down protective metal gates, and entrepreneurial street vendors were jumping in to sell makeshift breathing masks.
Within minutes and without warning, teargas rained down and the students quickly dispersed. Police vans and army tanks barreled in to block entrances, keeping some protesters out and surrounding others. By the time I recovered from the gas and navigated my way back, the protesters had regrouped on an artery into Tahrir, Talaat Harb Street.
As nightfall descended, protesters faced the officers and their vans and tanks, chanting with increasing urgency: “The people want the fall of the regime!” The officers stared back, their water cannons and teargas guns loaded and their sirens blaring. Ambulances stood in wait.
After about half an hour, the police vans suddenly accelerated toward the heart of the demonstration, firing canister after canister of tear gas directly at protesters, who responded by throwing rocks, then retreated. I followed the police trucks as they zoomed up Talaat Harb Street, then down side streets, and I watched as officers hunted protesters with the help of local citizens eager to support the crackdown. As the gas became too thick for even the most seasoned activists, the protest dispersed.
By the end of the night, police had arrested 21 protesters, and the prosecutor soon ordered them detained pending investigations on charges of illegal public assembly, thuggery, resisting arrest, and violating the assembly law, according to the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper.
Crackdowns on protests are the new normal in Egypt. The restrictive assembly law now grants legal cover to what has been standard police practice.