Jihan Hafiz reports that in Cairo government forces unleash a powerful new form of tear gas against
JIHAN HAFIZ, TRNN: The human chain along Mohammed Mahmoud street, which was the front lines of the street battles, designates the beginning of a ceasefire between demonstrators and state security forces. But before the peace, chaos ensued through chemical bombardment unleashed by government forces.
HAFIZ: People are falling because of tear gas, people are having a hard time breathing upon getting shot by tear gas, and they’re about 100 feet away from [where it was shot]. Everyone here is civilians. You can see women here. There are children, there are young people. And all of them are in the crossfire.
HAFIZ: Its toxic smoke has come to symbolize the brutality of Egypt’s security forces. During the five days of violent street battles between protesters and police, makeshift clinics and hospitals in Tahrir Square were overwhelmed with tear gas victims. Some did not survive. The Egyptian Health Ministry reports seven people died from asphyxiation caused by tear gas. Innocent bystanders have also fallen victim, like this woman, who inhaled the gas while grocery shopping in the downtown area.
MONA ABDEL MUSTAFA, TEAR-GASSED WHILE SHOPPING: I was standing really far away, I swear! I suffocated. The smoke was going into my eyes and up my nose, and then I fainted. I was standing far away. If this is what they’re using out there, it’s going to make the youth want to retaliate even further.
HAFIZ: Demonstrators and medical personnel charge police with using tear gas excessively. Some suggest that the tear gas used against protesters is more toxic than that used during the so-called January 25 Revolution, possibly due to the use of expired canisters. Samir, who was unconscious half an hour before this interview, explains why the gas has such a devastating effect.
SAMIR, IT STUDENT: The expiry date. Secondly, this is supposed to be shot from a distance no less than 320 meters. Instead, this is being shot at us from less than 20 meters. It is against the law to shoot at anybody from so close. It seems we’re getting shot at with this stuff as some sort of experiment, but its effects are really severe.
HAFIZ: The noxious clouds of smoke were so devastating, it was impossible at times for ambulances to wade through the fallen bodies.
HAFIZ: This is a moped ambulance. They’re using these modped ambulances because they have accessibility to get in through these crowds and make it to the Interior Ministry, where a lot of the injuries and a lot of the casualties are coming through. The medicine used by doctors earlier in year to resuscitate victims of tear gas has been inadequate this time.
OSAM SADAR, DOCTOR OF FIELD CLINIC: Severity of cases increased. They’re using different type of gas which make patient come into convulsion, repeated vomiting of unknown cause, which may be from the toxicity of–organophosphorus toxicity or something else. So we’re using some solution like glucose plus nuvogel plus water to making protective gel or protective coat against this gas.
HAFIZ: Human rights organizations and medical personnel have sent the gas canisters to laboratories for analysis, helping them devise new treatments.
KHALED ABOHASWA, MEDICAL VOLUNTEER, FIELD CLINIC: We are trying to find a remedy for these gas bombs. We surfed the internet looking for its chemical contents. This some kind of different [variant] of those bombs used before. It’s not the same. It’s different, and its infliction over the human. You can feel scratches over your skin. Every skin you can feel a scratch, in your eye and your nose. And you have a breaths–problem in your breaths. And sometimes it become to be a heart attack.
HAFIZ: On Wednesday evening of last week, security forces broke a truce between demonstrators and pounded the side streets leading into the square with tear gas and rubber bullets. Al Jazeera reported tear gas was being released into Tahrir Square, where families and thousands of women gathered to lend their support. Almost immediately the protesters were affected. According to the State Department’s 2010 fiscal year report on foreign assistance, more than $1.7 million of nonlethal weapons, including tear gas, were exported to Egypt from the United States. Canisters collected by protesters and doctors indicate that most of the tear gas was produced by two companies in Pennsylvania.
HAFIZ: So here are some of the tear gas canisters that the protesters have been collecting. This is another one of the CTS ones, the Combined Tactical Systems, which is manufactured in Jamestown, Pennsylvania, quite obviously [incompr.] made in the USA.
HAFIZ: The other US company with tear gas canisters all over the streets of Egypt is Federal Laboratories, which is based in Saltsburg, PA, and is owned by British military contractor BAE systems. This medical volunteer describes the side effects of merely taking the Federal Laboratory’s canister out of a plastic bag.
NOUWRA, MEDICAL VOLUNTEER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): It smells really strong. The smell is really strong. And it really hurts the eyes, and breathing becomes very difficult. This is all after the canister was used, emptied, cooled down … and yet, still, once I take it out of my bag, you can see what happens.
HAFIZ: Both companies describe their products as, quote, “less lethal”. They have come under fire for deaths caused by the use of their tear gas by one of their major clients, the Israeli government. Combined Tactical Systems flies an Israeli flag over their building in Jamestown. Despite the immense use of tear gas, protesters continued to hold Tahrir Square, proving their resilience and resistance overcame the toxic gases used again them.
ABOHASWA: We will take our rights [incompr.] the gas not–it’s effective and very dangerous, but we don’t fear the gas. We don’t fear the gas. We don’t fear to die here in the square. You know, this is a sign in Arabic. In Arabic [Arabic] which means we can die here anytime. I’m dying here. I will die here, or they go.
HAFIZ: While the fighting has stopped for now, human rights groups are investigating the use of tear gas by Egyptian security forces in recent days. Jihan Hafiz for The Real News in Cairo, Egypt.