CAIRO — Egypt’s military rulers escalated a bloody crackdown on street protesters on Saturday, chasing down and beating unarmed civilians, even while the prime minister was denying in a televised news conference that security forces were using any force.
The contradiction in the military-led government’s statements and actions appeared to represent a shift in strategy by the military council. After trying for months to preserve some credibility and collaboration with the Egyptian political elite, the ruling generals on Saturday scarcely acknowledged the demands made by their newly appointed civilian advisory council the night before that the military cease its violence and apologize to demonstrators.
Instead, as the crackdown entered its second day, the military council appeared to be playing to those Egyptians impatient with the continuing protests and eager for a return to stability. Crowds of supporters turned out downtown on Saturday morning to cheer on the military police, hand them drinks of water and help them close off Tahrir Square from demonstrators massing to get in.
Protesters, for their part, charged that the military rulers were provoking the clashes to derail or discredit the continuing election of a new Parliament that could challenge their power. “The military council is responsible for everything that happens,” Ziad el-Elaimy, a newly elected member of Parliament who was beaten Friday by the military police, said in a television interview.
The prime minister, Kamal Ganzouri, issued his denial that the military had or would use force in a news conference on Saturday morning after more than 24 hours of street fighting in front of the military-occupied Parliament building that left 10 dead from gunshots and hundreds wounded. For most of the previous day and night, men in plain clothes, accompanied by a few in uniform, stood on top of the “people’s assembly” and hurled chunks of concrete and stone taken from inside the building down at the crowd of demonstrators several stories below. A few men in uniform were seen with them.
On Saturday morning, a parliamentary building on Tahrir Square that houses a historical archive burst into flames. It was unclear who started the blaze; the military-led government blamed the protesters, while they blamed the military.
Around the same time, several witnesses said, hundreds of military police officers in riot gear finally chased the demonstrators from in front of the Parliament building into Tahrir Square and then out into the side streets. They burned down a small tent city, leaving the square in flames for hours and sending a thick plume of black smoke curling over downtown.
As they charged, soldiers used clubs to beat anyone they could catch. A video shown on a private Egyptian television network in the morning showed several military police officers using batons to beat civilians as they lay on the ground of Tahrir Square, and one appeared to be unconscious.
Several videos on the Internet and Egyptian television showed soldiers tearing the clothes off women as they beat them in Tahrir Square. At least one of the women was wearing the traditional hijab veil and covering before she was stripped; she lay unmoving while a soldier lifted his boot to kick her bare midriff.
Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading liberal and former United Nations atomic energy chief, addressed a public message to the military council over the Internet: “Did you see the pictures of the military police dragging girls and stripping them of their clothes? Aren’t you ashamed? Let me remind you: justice is above power.”
Passers-by were caught up as well. A young woman getting off a bus and trying to catch a taxi to work was grabbed by soldiers and thrown to the ground, before a group of people rescued her and tucked her into a passing vehicle.
As the military police were charging the square, Mr. Ganzouri, the military-appointed prime minister and a former prime minister under the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, was declaring at his televised news conference that the only acts of violence were arson and vandalism committed by the protesters. Contradicting the accounts of civilian witnesses, he said that soldiers had come out on Friday only to protect the Parliament and cabinet buildings.