Egypt’s Mutiny Reported Over; Death Toll Put at 36
Army tanks and troops Thursday captured a base occupied by mutinous security forces near the Pyramids as the death toll climbed to 36 in three days of fighting in the Egyptian capital, government officials said.
With mopping-up operations nearly completed around the Pyramids, the officials said the revolt by several thousand members of the paramilitary Central Security Forces has been crushed.
Osama Baz, President Hosni Mubarak’s chief political adviser, told reporters that 36 people were killed and 321 injured in the clashes that erupted near the Pyramids on Tuesday night. The unrest spread throughout the capital and to three provincial cities before the army could restore control.
Egypt’s prosecutor general, Mohammed Guindi, said that 2,000 members of the 120,000-member security forces and 700 civilian rioters have been arrested.
In what appeared to be the government’s first admission that reasons for the clashes go beyond a simple dispute over conscription, Baz said authorities were looking “very seriously into the causes and underlying causes” of the worst rioting here in nine years.
However, he maintained that the clashes were an “isolated episode, . . . not a mass uprising,” adding that the four-year-old Mubarak government remains “very safe, secure and solid.”
Privately, a number of diplomats and political analysts questioned this assessment. They noted that the violence triggered by a mutiny at a security forces base very quickly fused with economic, political and religious grievances that brought mobs of rioting civilians into the streets.
Some of the rioting had Islamic fundamentalist overtones. In some cases, roving bands of club-wielding youths looted shops and attacked cars in wealthy areas of the city, while in others bands of men chanting “God is great!” broke into nightclubs and discotheques and destroyed their stocks of liquor before setting fire to them, according to witnesses.
‘The Problem Will Grow’
“There is always a tendency to treat these things as isolated incidents that can be solved just by increasing security until order is restored,” said an Egyptian political scientist. “But unless the government can address the instability in this society, the problem will grow worse. While I don’t think there is an immediate threat to the government, there is a need for urgent economic and social reform.”
After a night of intermittent clashes and scattered rioting, order throughout the capital appeared to have been restored by Thursday afternoon with a final army assault on the security forces base in Giza where the mutiny began two days earlier.
Witnesses said that troops advanced on the base near the Pyramids under tank and heavy machine-gun fire Thursday morning. By early afternoon, the fighting had died down to sporadic volleys of automatic weapons fire. At 2 p.m., officers at a forward roadblock a few hundred yards from the camp said the army had complete control, arresting the last of the security forces inside.
“It’s all over,” said an army captain. “It’s finished.”
Early today, however, some sporadic gunfire was reported in Giza, although officials were uncertain of the source.
Elsewhere in the capital, security improved to the point where officials relaxed an around-the-clock curfew for three hours during the day to allow residents to buy food and other essentials.
There was near pandemonium, however, as shoppers crammed into meat, vegetable and fruit stores and jostled one another in the competition to stock up on supplies. Block-long lines formed around bakeries, and tempers flared as everyone sought to horde foodstuffs. No one, it seemed, was entirely convinced by the government’s assurances that the fighting was over.
Troops with bayonets fixed to their rifles stood guard at government offices, embassies and key intersections. Officials said the curfew will be lifted for six hours today so that people will have time both to shop and go to their mosques on the Muslim day of prayer.
Many Tourists Trapped
Hundreds of tourists, including about 200 Americans, who were trapped in hotels near the Pyramids when the fighting erupted began leaving the country aboard special EgyptAir flights.
Although no accurate figures have yet been compiled, property damage from the fighting is estimated to exceed several hundred million dollars. Three luxury Giza hotels--the Holiday Pyramids, the Holiday Sphinx and the Jolie Ville--were destroyed, along with a score of nightclubs and discotheques.
Dimitri Veltsos, general manager of the adjacent Holiday Pyramids and Holiday Sphinx, said that both of his hotels were “unsalvageable.” He estimated the damage to both at $250 million.
“We had 280 guests at the Pyramids and 170 next door at the Sphinx when it started Tuesday night,” said Veltsos. “First the rioters smashed the cars with clubs and iron bars and set fire to them. Then they broke the hotel windows and threw burning car parts inside. They were like wild dogs.”
Veltsos said the rioters included both uniformed security personnel and men in civilian clothes who chanted “Allahu akbar (God is great)” as they smashed windows, crockery and furniture before setting the two hotels ablaze.
He said the hotels’ security staffs moved the guests first to the upper floors, then to the roofs and finally down to the ground in back of the two hotels via emergency stairs as the flames spread.
The two hotels were still standing but both were blackened hulks. Dozens of burned-out cars lay littered around the entranceway, its asphalt carpeted with broken glass. A few hundred yards down the road, the Jolie Ville looked like a giant carton that had been repeatedly stepped on. Its structure had collapsed.
Jack Leonard, a veterinarian from Pittsburgh, said he was having dinner with friends at the Jolie Ville when the disturbances erupted.
“We were just leaving the hotel in our car when we ran into this mob of angry-looking Egyptians, all in police uniforms,” he said. “They were all standing there, hollering and throwing bricks at us. We turned around, the bricks bouncing off the car, and sped in the opposite direction.”
Leonard said he made it to another hotel, the Ramada, where he and other guests spent the night “huddled on the floor and in closets on the upper floors.” It took quick thinking by the Ramada staff to save them, however. When the mob arrived, the staff cut electricity to the hotel while security guards fired into the air from the roof, chasing the rioters off, Leonard said.
According to the government, the disturbances were triggered by a false rumor circulating through the security forces saying that their terms of conscription were being extended a year, from three years to four.
Although it was plainly evident that the unrest spread from the security forces to the civilian sector, the government was reluctant to admit that anyone but “deviationist” members of the security forces were involved.
Information Minister Safwat Sharif blamed the attack on the nightclubs on “fugitives from the Central Security Forces,” who he said “infiltrated the Pyramids region and threw incendiary substances at hotels and tourist shops . . . until army forces moved in and arrested them.”
His account was contradicted by a number of residents of the area, who said the rioters on Wednesday night were civilian youths chanting Islamic slogans as they attacked one nightclub after another without interference by the army, which they said had not yet moved into the Pyramids area.