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Who's in charge? Mixed signals from Egypt's rulers

Exactly one year since the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, violent clashes erupted again Saturday around Cairo's Tahrir Square. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

CAIRO -- The echo from the microphones in the room where the prime minister had just finished his press conference on Saturday morning was still ringing in everyone's ears.

Could he have been right?

Prime Minister Kamal Ghanzoury looked journalists, and by extension the Egyptian people, square in the eye and told them the military and the police were not involved in the clashes on Friday -- and if they were, they were only acting in self-defense.


He went on to add that the military exercised restraint and did not fire on the crowds.

But even more surprising to many activists, Ghanzoury said the people involved in Friday's clashes were not revolutionaries.

The three-weeklong peaceful protests outside his office turned violent Friday when, according to him, troublemakers attacked the military.

His depiction was an attempt, protesters felt, to taint them and their sit-in.

Ghanzoury's comments contradicted widespread reports and eyewitness accounts from journalists and activists.

Regardless of the moment that precipitated the initial clash between the military and the protesters, the military's conduct over the past 48 hours has many Egyptians questioning its competence and intentions.

In fact, videos made by eyewitnesses show the military engaged in all kinds of behavior, originally denied by the prime minister, including taunting protesters with rude gestures, lobbing stones at them, chasing them with sticks, beating and dragging them while they are on the ground and in more than one instance, opening fire with pistols.

In the video above, posted on the website of Mosireen, an Egyptian non-profit organization that helps citizen journalists by running a media center in downtown Cairo, alleged members of Egypt's military are seen taunting protesters with rude hand gestures. They can also be seen throwing stones at the protesters in this video.

In another video, aired by a private Egyptian satellite channel, a soldier can be seen aiming a pistol at people who were coming to recover a wounded protester being attacked by a crowd in military riot gear.

In his press conference the prime minister reiterated a point made earlier in a statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. All of the families of those killed would be compensated. Those injured would be treated at the state's expense. An independent civilian advisory council created after last month's deadly fighting between security forces and protesters recommended all those arrested during the clashes be released.

But on Saturday, the PM said they were not revolutionaries. In fact, Egypt's general prosecutor ordered 16 people detained for four days pending investigation into their involvement in instigating the clashes and the killings -- and none were members of the military or police. And despite widespread complaints by protesters and human rights organizations, no investigations into alleged military misconduct have been launched by prosecutors.

So why would the military offer to treat those injured and compensate victims if it felt they were behaving illegally? It seems odd for the state to treat so-called martyrs if it viewed them as vandals and agents of foreign hands.

For its part, the military has posted video http://youtu.be/8grDc-iz5wg) on its Facebook page showing what it claims were vandals destroying government buildings. Egypt's historic Geographic Society building was set on fire on Saturday. It was not clear how the fire started in the building, home to some of Egypt's most important historic documents.

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 After last month's deadly clashes, the Supreme Council accepted the previous prime minister's resignation and promised to empower his replacement with the full authority he needs to run the country. The new prime minister pledged that force would not be used against demonstrators. But some analysts say that the new clashes raise questions about his ability to reign in the security forces and about the degree of cooperation between the military and the civilians supposedly running the country.  

In a post on his Twitter page, prominent opposition figure Mohammed El Baradei said that if the PM had all of the executive authority of the president, which includes security in the country, then in what capacity did the military police act against the protesters?

So did Prime Minister Ghanzoury know that within minutes of concluding his press conference, the military would unleash an assault against the protesters? If he did, then he purposely put a civilian facade on a military crackdown, some say. If he didn't know, then, as El Baradei pointed out, how can he restore law and order in the country if he is not in charge of the one institution that has all the guns?