CAIRO (Reuters) - After eight days of protests that killed nearly 60 people, a video of one demonstrator stripped naked, dragged across the ground and beaten with truncheons by helmeted riot police has fired Egyptians to a new level of outrage.
Hamada Saber, 48, lay in a police hospital on Saturday, the morning after he was shown on television naked, covered in soot and thrashed by half a dozen policemen who had pulled him to an armoured vehicle near the presidential palace.
President Mohamed Mursi’s office promised an investigation into the incident, which followed the deadliest wave of bloodshed of his seven-month rule. His opponents say it proves he has chosen to order a brutal crackdown like that carried out by Hosni Mubarak against the uprising that toppled him in 2011.
“Mursi has been stripped bare and has lost his legitimacy. Done,” tweeted Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 youth movement that helped launch the anti-Mubarak protests.
Another protester was shot dead on Friday and more than 100 were injured, many seriously, in battles between police and demonstrators who attacked the palace with petrol bombs.
That unrest followed eight days of violence that saw dozens of protesters shot dead in the Suez Canal city of Port Said and Mursi respond by declaring a curfew and state of emergency there and in two other cities.
But none of the bloodshed - which the authorities have blamed on the need for police to control violent crowds - has quite resonated like the images of officers abusing a man at their feet - clearly helpless, prone and no possible threat.
“Stripping naked and dragging an Egyptian is a crime that shows the excessive violence of the security forces and the continuation of its repressive practices - a crime for which the president and his interior minister are responsible,” liberal politician Amr Hamzawy said on Twitter.
The incident was an unmistakable reminder of the beating of a woman by riot police on Tahrir Square in December 2011. Images of her being dragged and stomped on - her black abaya cloak torn open to reveal her naked torso and blue bra - became a rallying symbol for the revolution and undermined the interim military rulers who held power between Mubarak’s fall and Mursi’s rise.
The anger was compounded with disbelief on Saturday when the prosecutor’s office released a statement saying Saber had exonerated the police and denied they had assaulted him. His clothes had inadvertently come off while police were shielding him from protesters, it quoted him as saying.
“This shows that state institutions are collapsing, as is the rule of law. We are living in chaos,” said lawyer Achraf Shazly, 35. “Next thing you know, the martyr killed yesterday will rise from the dead and say he wasn’t shot.”
The rise of Mursi - the first freely elected leader in Egypt’s 5,000-year history - is probably the single most important change achieved by two years of revolts across the Arab world. But seven months since taking office, he has failed to unite Egyptians. Street unrest and political instability threaten to render the most populous Arab state ungovernable.
The latest round of violence was triggered by the second anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak and death sentences handed down last week in Port Said over a soccer stadium riot.
Mursi has had little opportunity to reform the police and security forces he inherited from Mubarak and the military men.
But the police action against protests this time has been far deadlier than it was even a few months ago, when bigger crowds demonstrated against a new constitution. That suggests to opponents that Mursi has ordered a tougher response.
“The instructions of the interior minister to use excessive violence in confronting protesters does not seem like surprising behaviour given the clear incitement by prominent figures in the presidency,” said opposition coalition spokesman Khaled Daoud.
The liberal, leftist and secularist opposition accuses Mursi of betraying the revolution that toppled Mubarak by concentrating too much power in his own hands and those of his Muslim Brotherhood, a formerly underground Islamist movement.
Mursi and the Brotherhood accuse the opposition of stoking street unrest to further their demands for a national unity government as a way to retake power they lost at the ballot box.
In announcing an investigation into the beating of Saber, Mursi’s office made clear he was still pointing the blame at the political opponents who have encouraged protests.
“What has transpired over the past day is not political expression, but rather acts of criminality. The presidency will not tolerate vandalism or attacks on individuals and property. The police have responded to these actions in a restrained manner,” Mursi’s office said.
“Doubtless, in the heat of the violence, there can be violations of civil liberties, and the presidency equally will not tolerate such abuses. In one incident, an individual was seen to be dragged and beaten by police. The Minister of Interior has, appropriately, announced an investigation.” (Edited by Jason Webb)