In the week since Egypt marked the second anniversary of its January 25 revolution, protests have slid into darker and more anarchic episodes. In Suez, 10 demonstrators were reportedly killed from gunshots that came from behind and at close range. In Port Said, relatives of soccer fans sentenced to death for their role in a deadly riot tried to storm the prison holding the men, leading to more than 40 deaths. And in Cairo, young men with few prospects and enduring grudges against the government threw Molotov cocktails at the front gate of the presidential palace, provoking a vicious police response.
The escalating chaos has led President Mohammed Morsi to declare a state of emergency among the restive Suez Canal cities, while the opposition — close to agreeing to direct negotiations with Morsi — now says it would rather contribute to “toppling” the regime and putting the president on trial.
During the fighting outside the palace on Friday night, riot police from the Central Security Forces’ special operations division could be seen striding down the road, firing birdshot at any protesters within range. Television cameras on a balcony above the road then picked up an even more horrifying scene: The police were dragging a naked, middle-aged man, his pants around his ankles, and beating him. They stood over him and swung their batons as he appeared to plead for mercy, then pulled him into an armored police van.
The beating provoked a wave of disgust and fury among Egyptians watching events unfold live, and the government reacted swiftly. The official Twitter account of President Mohammed Morsi’s office said the president had been “shocked” by the video, and the Interior Minister — who leads the police — publicly apologized and said an investigation was under way.
But in a surreal twist, the victim, Hamada Saber, gave television interviews from his hospital bed on Saturday claiming that he had been beaten and stripped by protesters, and that the police had seized him for his own safety as he ran away. Saber’s account was quickly contradicted by relatives, including his daughter and a nephew, who called into the same news shows to allege that Saber was lying in a police hospital and had been threatened into making his statements.
Whatever the case, Saber’s beating appeared to push the political climate over the edge. The opposition National Salvation Front, led by prominent progressive Mohamed ElBaradei, had been on the verge of agreeing to direct talks with Morsi to renegotiate the constitution forced through by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in November. Instead, they issued a statement on Saturday saying they were now “aligned” with those seeking to “topple the regime of tyranny and dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood.” They also called for “neutral judicial investigations” into all the bloodshed to bring “those responsible to fair trials, beginning from the president and his interior minister.”
A spokesman for the group quickly conditioned those strong demands, saying the “regime of tyranny” was not the government itself and that Morsi should be tried only if an investigation did find him responsible. But the realignment indicated ideological splits in the front between those eager to confront Morsi with revolutionary tactics and those who want to contest parliamentary elections likely coming in April. Should they settle on the latter course, an intense and drawn-out battle for legitimacy is likely to unfold in Egypt.