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Egypt Protests: Fighting Rages In Tahrir Square

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CAIRO -- Fighting in the streets around Tahrir Square continued into Tuesday night, as young men battled security forces.

On Tuesday, Egypt's ruling military regime offered direct, limited concessions to their powers for the first time since street protests and clashes began anew here four days ago.

But as night fell, the tens of thousands of people who spent much of the day crammed in Tahrir Square -- chanting and dancing and, in some cases, engaging in brutal clashes with state security forces -- showed no signs of being placated by the military's offer.

After a long day of massive street protests, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) indicated Tuesday evening that they would support the formation of a new civilian "rescue" cabinet. They also promised that elections for a civilian president, which had been pushed back until 2013, would take place in June 2012.

In a moment reminiscent of the bitter February night when former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak attempted to quell protesters in Tahrir Square with a defensive speech, the current leader of the country's ruling military regime addressed the public Tuesday evening. In his first remarks on the renewed uprising in Cairo, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi ignored demands to resign and reiterated that he accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's government.

Denouncing "hidden powers trying to cause a rift between the people and the armed forces," Tantawi pledged to hold elections for a civilian president soon, but stopped short of conceding any of protesters' major demands, which include giving up military control of the state, and ending all military trials and Egypt's emergency laws.

The people in Tahrir Square immediately roared with disapproval, chanting "Irhal, irhal!", or "Go, go!", repeatedly -- the same mantra they yelled during the 18 days of protests in January and February that eventually forced Mubarak to step down.

A potentially crucial difference between this week's protests and events of February, however, is that Tantawi's audience is significantly angrier, more frustrated, and -- in some cases -- more violent than before. In buildings near Tahrir, people listened to the speech over the sound of gunfire and tear gas rounds.

At one point during the day, an Egyptian Army captain who gained notoriety for his defiance to the regime in February appeared before the crowd, where he was hailed and carried on protesters' shoulders.

Speaking later to reporters in the square, the officer, Ahmed Shoman, said the army "should never be above the people," and alleged that many members of the armed forces did not agree with the positions of the leading generals.

But as the regime made its concessions, many people in Tahrir could detect a distinct lack of satisfaction on the part of protesters, stemming in part from the disappointments and frustrations of the past nine months, but also from the ongoing abuses committed by the ruling military.

"This is definitely not a Mubarak-steps-down moment," Egyptian Twitter user Sarah Badr said after the SCAF's announcement began to trickle out, and protesters continued their defiant chants.

Egypt expert Michael Hanna noted in a tweet that SCAF hasn't discussed emergency law, military courts, or detainees, "some serious issues that must be part of any credible plan."

Up the street from central Tahrir, smoke and tear gas continued to rise above the intersections where anti-government youths have been battling security forces, and the sound of protesters' chants demanding the end of the military leadership were punctuated only by the blaring sirens of ambulances, as they ferried wounded protesters out of the combat zone.

Reports have put the death toll from the latest bout of fighting at around 35, although the figures vary, and authorities have been accused of banning reporters from visiting morgues.

A large fire broke out in the early hours of the night in the upper floors of a building by the square. The fire was said to have been started by one of the many volleys of tear gas fired by riot gear-clad police officers. Black smoke poured across the square and much of the surrounding areas.

Yesterday, a little before midnight, a trip to the front lines of the battle by The Huffington Post revealed a certain rhythm to the combat. Along Mohamed Mahmoud street thousands of young men faced off with the police guarding the Ministry of the Interior, while their comrades launched flanking assaults from various side streets and alleys.

Along one pitch black alleyway leading directly to the police frontline, HuffPost watched the young men creep down the street throwing rocks and yelling.

When it appeared their compatriots on the street had the upper hand -- throwing waves of Molotov cocktails and forcing the police into retreat -- they would surge forward.

Within minutes, however, the police, taking cover behind armored personnel carriers and other makeshift barricades, would recover and charge back, shooting rubber bullets directly into the crowds, and tear gas canisters both into the crowd and overhead.

As the youths raced backwards, others standing in the intersection -- with a clearer view of the action ahead -- yelled "Stay there! Stay there!" urging their friends not to give up too much ground.

The battles had continued this way, and along more or less the same ground, for over 60 hours.

One street to the north, organizers had set up an emergency field hospital at the base of the street, where it met Tahrir Square. Every few seconds, injured fighters were rushed from the battle zone onto waiting motorcycles, where they would be sandwiched between two rescuers and delivered to the clinics.

Many had rubber bullet wounds in the head and legs, while others were simply overcome by asphyxiation from the repeated rounds of tear gas fired into the confined space of the alleyways. The more seriously injured found their way directly onto a waiting ambulance, to be taken to a makeshift hospital that protesters had set up in a church nearby.

Every few feet, protesters offered bottles of milk or vinegar or other concoctions, which when sprayed in the eyes offered effective protection from the thick tear gas that constantly lingered in the air, although was little use to direct hits from the gas.

Groups of young Egyptian women were known to show up at the front to cheer on the fighters.

"We're here to support you," one fighter said he was told by a gang of girls who surprised him close to police lines earlier in the day.

The fighter explained that many of his compatriots had come to fight because they were poor, and detested the way state police forces had treated them for all their lives.

"These are the people who have nothing in Egypt," he said. "They were the ones who were the most abused by Mubarak. They hate the state."

Protesters back in Tahrir Square, where the scene was calm but tense, have called for the military regime now running the country to fully remove themselves from power, but they have not united behind any candidates for replacement.

Even after midnight, Tahrir was as full as it had been in days, with tens of thousands of people -- mainly male -- watching the fighting develop, or milling around chanting anti-military rhetoric.

Religious figures and politicians who have tried to enter Tahrir, whether to rally the protesters around or attempt to moderate their behaviors, have generally been chased from the square, as the protesters insist they are defending the revolution from corruption from religious ideology or personality politics.

One top figure from the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative religious group that has one of the largest followings in Egypt, has been chased from the square by angry crowds twice in the past two days.

Late on Monday, the group, which is expected to fare well in next week's parliamentary elections, formally announced that they would not be joining the Tahrir protests.

This is a developing story. Follow below for the latest updates:

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Egyptian-American reporter Mona Eltahawy was reportedly beaten and arrested today in Cairo. She tweeted, "Beaten arrested in interior ministry", sparking a Twitter-wide frenzy. The U.S. State Department responded via Twitter, saying "Reports of @monaeltahawy and @pangeaworld detention very concerning. @USEmbassyCairo engaging authorities. #FreeMona"

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The Associated Press has an update on the arrest of Jehane Nojaim.

AP -- An American film maker has told a colleague by phone that she was arrested by Egyptian police while documenting clashes in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Jehane Nojaim's producer Karim Amer says she was detained and her camera was confiscated.

He said Wednesday he was separated from her after they both fled from tear gas.

Nojaim is an award-winning film maker of Egyptian ancestry, best known for her 2004 documentary "Control Room" about the pan-Arab news station, Al-Jazeera.

Clashes resumed for a fifth day in central Cairo despite a promise by the head of the ruling military council to speed transition to civilian rule, aiming for next July. Protesters demand that the military leave office now.

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@ liamstack : Arrested the moment CSF broke truce on mansur st "@hadeelalsh: American-Egyptian film maker Jehane Nojaim arrested by mil police in #Tahrir"

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The grand imam of Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in Egypt, urged police to refrain from shooting on protesters, Al Arabiya reports.

Al-Azhar “calls on the police leadership to immediately issue orders not to point their weapons at demonstrators... no matter what the reasons,” grand imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb reportedly saidin a recorded address on state television.

“Al-Azhar also calls on our children in Tahrir Square and all the squares of Egypt to maintain the peaceful nature of their revolution, despite the sacrifices and difficulties they face and to protect all private and public property,” the imam added.

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Al Masry Al Youm reports Egypt's Health Minister Amr Helmy acknowledged the use of live ammunition, cartridges and rubber bullets against demonstrators in Tahrir Square.

Helmy also promised to launch a committee to examine the type of teargas that was fired at the protesters. He denied the use of nerve agent in the gas, as Mohamed ElBaradei suggested in a tweet yesterday.

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Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros reports from Tahrir Square that Mohamed Mahmoud street is being hit with constant rounds of tear gas. Dozens of people are injured. Tadros says the protesters are putting up bonfires to create a buffer between the demonstrators and the police.

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Share photos on twitter with Twitpic

@ seldeeb : security firing at protesters near #tahrir: http://t.co/Jsgi1MMv via @twitpic (via @Menna_Medhat)

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The BBC's David Botti has an interesting piece on Mohamed Mahmoud street, site of most of the clashes in the past days.

Botti writes:

The street is largely unknown to the outside world - overshadowed by the street's neighbor, Tahrir Square. But its role in Egypt's struggle to navigate a post-revolution era mirrors that of the nation where violence still flares and people still demand change.

Read the article here.

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CNN's Ben Wedeman reporting discord between the Army and Central Security in Tahrir

@ bencnn : It is clear there is a serious disagreement between the Army and Interior Ministry over how to deal with the battle off #Tahrir #Egypt

@ bencnn : Saw Army soldiers trying to stop Central Security Forces from throwing rocks, shooting teargas, but they were outnumbered. #tahrir #egypt

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The International Crisis Group weigh in on whether or not to hold Egypt's scheduled elections next week.

The group writes:

There are valid arguments as to why elections cannot be held that early given ongoing violence and instability. But a postponement – at least without a consensus among political parties – could prove far more costly. It would further fuel concern about the SCAF’s intentions, further split the opposition, and antagonise the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which almost certainly would see this as an attempt to rob it of its expected strong showing. As for presidential elections, they should be moved up and held as soon as feasible.

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via Al Masry Al Youm

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The truce between protesters and police in Mohamed Mahmoud street is reportedly over. Associate Press reporter Hadeel Al Shalchi tweets there are bonfires in the street and clouds of tear gas are hanging over the area.

@ liamstack : I cannot believe the ceasefire just ended that way. No idea where this goes from here. #tahrir #egypt

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Al Masry Al Youm reports the United Nations Human Rights Chief called for an investigation into the death of portesters on Egypt's Tahrir square.

"I urge the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, including the apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition," said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay according to the newspaper.

"There should be a prompt, impartial and independent investigation, and accountability for those found responsible for the abuses that have taken place should be ensured," she added.

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A great set of photos from the protests yesterday in Tahrir Square by Mosa'ab Elshamy. Check them out here.

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@ AlArabiya_Eng : Egyptian troops deployed around the Interior Ministry in Cairo, replacing riot police #Tahrir

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@ TamerELG : On sale in #Tahrir: candied apples! In addition 2 almost anything else u can think of. Carnival atmosphere. Fighting continues on outskirts

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There appears to be a cease fire in place between protesters and security forces in Mohamed Mahmoud Street. Mohamed Mahmoud has seen the worst clashes in the past days.

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@ FRANCE24 : RT @FrancoisF24: #Tahrir Smoke by AUC library near interior min. Tear gas aimed at youths on rooftop. http://t.co/DhnodKdT

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The death toll in Egypt's clashes has risen to 37, Reuters writes. The Egyptian Health Ministry earlier said 32 people had been killed in the protests so far. 2,000 have been wounded.

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Clashes in Egypt on Wednesday center around the Interior Ministry, the Associated Press reports. Police and army troops are using tear gas and rubble bullets to keep protesters from storming th ebuilding.

The protesters say they have no wish to storm the ministry but were preventing the police and army from evicting them from Tahrir by pinning them down a safe distance away from the massive plaza.

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A building of the American University in Cairo is reportedly on fire.

@ ianinegypt : To clarify the old AUC building on fire is at the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud and Falaky. #egypt #tahrir

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@ kristenchick : Fireworks amid the tear gas on Mohamed Mahmoud St just now, outside AUC http://t.co/2QgCkSGq

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Nobel Peace Prize winner and Egyptian political leader Mohamed ElBaradei called the tear gas attack on Tahrir Square "a massacre" on twitter.

@ ElBaradei : Tear gas with nerve agent & live ammunition being used against civilians in Tahrir. A massacre is taking place

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@ sharifkouddous : Tear gas just hit the square forcing people to rush in all directions. Was on 9th floor balcony and was unbearable even here.

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Al Masry Al Youm uploaded this video on fighting earlier today in the streets near Tahrir Square.

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Twitter is exploding with tweets about tear gas in Tahrir. A lot of people are running from the square, through the streets.

Photo from tear gas on Bab el Louq Square, via @moftasa

Tear gas saturating bab el louq square. الغاز يشبع.      #tah... on Twitpic

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Reuters' reports from earlier today. Footage shows Mohamed Mahmoud street, a crucial road connecting Tahrir Square and the ministry of the interior.

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