"There are so many rocks, it looks like rain"

Report and video footage of the Egyptian army's violence against protesters in Cairo.

The fighting between protesters, the Egyptian army (SCAF) and now the Central Security Forces on Egypt's Tahrir Square has entered its fourth day with very bloody scenes taking place on the midan over night. This morning, both UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton have separately made statements condemning the Egyptian authorities for their "excessive use of force", and calling for security forces to respect human rights.

The fierce battles mark an escalation in violence by the military regime against the people despite this morning's televised press conference, where the SCAF claimed there was no evidence of use of force against the protesters, and Saturday's statement from the SCAF-appointed Prime Minister, Kamel Ganzouri, who said they would not violently respond to demonstrations.

Facing increasing pressure from the protesters who are pushing for the removal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces from power and a swift transition to a civilian government, the army have continued to resort to forcibly quelling protests. Against the background of elections, which the protesters feel will only produce a puppet parliament, the SCAF, who have publicly painted themselves as a peace-keeping force, appear even more determined.

At approximately 4am this morning, the Central Security Forces together with the army stormed the square using long-range tear gas canisters, shotguns and, as video footage proves, automatic weapons.

 

(Video courtesy of Mosireen)

"They attacked us with an incredible amount of force", says Sherif, 27, who was on Tahrir as they attacked. "We saw shotguns, possibly live ammunition. Regardless of the level of violence used, people stood their ground and are still staying put."

Two protesters were killed in the clearing of the square this morning. Mohammad Mohie Hussein, 30, who was detained with 200 others during the last four days of fighting on Qasr Al Aini Street, died from his injuries whilst in custody last night. Over 13 protesters have been killed in total since the fighting began and hundreds have been injured.

Four soldiers were captured on the square by protesters overnight. Protesters formed human cordons around the officers protecting them from angry crowds as they rushed them off Tahrir in cars and buses. One badly beaten soldier was treated by protesters in a field hospital.

The army built a third wall on Sheikh Rihan street last night, which is parallel to the street in front of the cabinet where the protesters' original sit-in had been. Yesterday afternoon they built a concrete wall blocking off Qasr Al Aini street which leads to Tahrir.

Clashes were sparked by the cabinet sit-in on early Friday morning after the army had arrested, beaten and electrocuted a young activist, Aboudi Ibrahim.

After clearing the sit-in, soldiers were seen hurling slabs of concrete paving, molotov cocktails, rocks and even a filing cabinet from the surrounding buildings onto the protesters causing severe head injuries. A field hospital by the Omar Makram mosque reported 11 head injuries in 15 minutes. At one point, two soldiers urinated on the crowds; others later performed obscene dances.

"I was on the frontline by the wall yesterday," says one young protester, who was unable to reveal his identity as he is on an army Wanted list and so currently in hiding. "It is so dark, as they switch the streets light off none of us could see the rocks. I was hit in the forehead and blood soaked my keffiyeh. I had to have nine stitches at the field hospital."

"There are so many rocks, it looks like rain. We set up a spotlight at one point so we could get out of the way of them," adds Omar, 24, also a protester who received gunshot wounds during the 120+ hour clashes three weeks ago.

Since Friday, there have been cases of extreme army brutality, particularly during the clearing of the streets and squares, with frequent instances of large groups of officers and plain-clothed police setting upon one protester at a time. I witnessed members of the military beating up paramedics by the field hospitals, older protesters who couldn't run as fastm, and bystanders. They burnt all the tents left on Tahrir square.

On Saturday afternoon the army charged protesters across Qasr Al Nile Bridge towards the neighbouring residential area of Zamalek and began pulling people out of cars.

Video and photographs of members of the armed forces stripping and beating a veiled female protester (see photo above) sparked national and international outrage. In the square, male protesters stopped cars to show them a newspaper with the image printed on it.

The attacks on women have rallied much needed public support for the protesters, as it is particularly shocking behaviour for the relatively conservative and predominantly Islamic Egyptian society.

"The army are treating men and women the same, they are not paying attention to the fact that we're are often physically weaker than an officer," explains Riham, 25, a doctor, who narrowly missed a beating herself. "It's not about men and women, whoever they face they beat up," adds female presidential candidate Bothaina Kamel, who is frequently on the square. "The problem is the army give orders to the soldiers to watch Pharaohs, a fulool [old regime] channel. They are brainwashed."

Mona Seif, sister of detained blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, described being arrested: "They attacked the kiosk where I was hiding... they were kicking me with their boots and hitting me with their sticks. The default is for them to hit even if there isn't a clear order." She described them ripping off a woman's niqab and beating a woman until her head bled. Her sister, Sanaa, who was also detained and badly beaten, heard people being tortured.

It is clear the military do not want these actions to be publicised. Yesterday they began entering flats overlooking Tahrir and confiscating cameras and throwing media equipment off balconies.

The army first attacked the protesters four days ago, as election votes were still being counted. Tonight the results from the 2nd round of Egypt's supposedly free and open elections are due to be announced. The fighting shows no sign of stopping.

"The army are playing with us," says 21-year-old Mahmoud, a filmmaker, who was also injured in the clashes. "The SCAF want the military regime to continue. But the protesters will not stop until we take those first steps into a civilian ruled country."

Bel Trew is based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter @beltrew

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Why there are fewer free-range eggs on sale right now

Because of restrictions designed to combat avian flu, some farms are losing their free-range status. Should consumers accept barn birds for now?

“How do you like your eggs,” asks the terrible chat-up line, “fried or fertilised?” But caged, barn, free-range or organic is the tougher choice faced by many. And come March the decision could get more complex still - as measures taken to combat the recent outbreak of avian flu begin to bite.

An H5N8 strain of flu has been identified across a number of UK and European farms this winter, and in response the government ordered all poultry to be kept indoors. But under EU regulations on classification, any hen kept inside for more than 12 weeks loses its "free range" status. Many consumers prefer free-range eggs for their higher welfare potential - so farmers fear losing business along with their label.

The 12-week limit has been reached today. After that, what happens next depends on whether farmers are working in a higher or lower risk area, as identified by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs on this interactive map. Those at higher risk must either cover their outdoor space with expensive netting or keep their hens indoors.

Those in lower risk areas may let their hens outside under supervision. But even then, producers are fearful of letting their hens outside and potentially exposing them to the flu. “It would finish us off if we got it,” says Susie Macmillian of Macs farm, “we’d lose all our wholesale customers – and I’m absolutely terrified about it."

The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) has thus ruled that all commercial boxes of free-range eggs must now carry stickers explaining that the hens have been housed indoors, regardless of what risk area they came from.

So what can consumers do to help? For Phil Brooke from Compassion in World Farming, it is vital that consumers temporarily put aside concerns about keeping hens indoors in order to support free-range and organic producers through this tricky time.

“In the short run these farmers need supporting - whether they call their eggs barn-produced or free-range,” says Brooke. “If people stop buying the eggs because they think the hens are being shut inside, then the farmers are going to have to kill the flocks. And you may end up without the free-range market”.

Continuing to buy these newly labelled eggs will therefore help tide the industry over this present crisis. But the scramble to explain the flu crisis to consumers is also showing up the sector’s wider cracks. "Free-range systems have the greatest potential to provide high welfare conditions for hens, but this potential is not always achieved,” says Professor Christine Nicol from the University of Bristol. 

Cage-free brands thus compete to attract consumer attention with promises of various welfare add-ons – from “woodland” egg to “happy” hens. But what difference do these provisions really make to a hen’s wellbeing? And are the big brands really best placed to decide?

Pressure to save on costs is also pushing some free-range and organic producers into ever larger economies of scale, says Susie Macmillian. And while the UK’s major retailers have committed to becoming cage free by 2025, they have not yet specified what will replace caged eggs as the value option.

Taken together, these trends suggest an urgent need for new ways of evaluating hen wellbeing.

EU categories currently divide eggs into four levels -  colony (caged), barn-produced, free-range and organic - and each level entails higher welfare standards than the last.  With free-range hens, for instance, there must be no more than nine birds in a square metre, while for organic hens it is no more than six.

But what about hens who enjoy roomier conditions but not the organic diet? At present there is no independently certified "free-range plus" to help distinguish such cases. The RSPCA Assured label (previously known as freedom Foods) ensures that hens' welfare has met standards above the legal minimum. Yet in an effort to help lift all hens out of the caged-sector, it is also very inclusive. In fact it currently covers almost all of the non-caged market.

Yet a sunny-side is in sight for further independent certification.  The Soil Association has already added an extra layer of conditions that organic producers must meet to gain its seal of approval: from free-range conditions for pullets (young hens), to smaller colony sizes, more pop-holes, and a ban on beak tipping. And some European welfare bodies have introduced new, multi-tiered systems of independent assessment across the cage-free spectrum. In Holland, the Dutch Society for the Protection of Animals awards its “Beter Leven” (Better Life) seal on a rising scale of one to three stars.

So could a similar system be introduced for UK free-range?  The RSPCA is not currently considering tiering its mark but the possibility for further differentiation in the future does exist. The RSPCA already conducts “welfare outcome assessments,” says Mia Fernyhough, who writes the RSPCA’s standards for laying hens. These take into account indicators of birds’ comfort  – such as their levels of feather cover - and allow assesors to place each individual farm on a sliding scale of success.

More streaming within free-range could also benefit farmers. According to Ben Pike of Bfrepa, the British Free Range Egg Producers Association, producers fear that if free-range becomes the norm, they will lose the small price differentiation that has kept them afloat.

The present flu crisis is expected to recede by April, and when it does the biggest welfare gap will still be between caged and non-caged hens. But if consumers are to help British egg prodcution continue to improve in sickness and in health, then more ambitious independent certification should be top of the pecking order.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.