Running battles flared in central Cairo on Wednesday even after Egyptian military police reinforced riot police guarding the interior ministry, a flashpoint for violence.
Riot police had earlier pulled back in what seemed to be an effort to calm tension after more than 30 people have been killed and 2 000 wounded in Egypt in six days of protests targeting the ruling army council, not the army itself.
But clashes erupted after nightfall as military police showered tear gas on stone-throwing demonstrators and fired guns into the air. Protesters stampeded back towards nearby Tahrir Square. Ambulances, sirens wailing, ferried casualties away while smoke billowed over the area from fires lit by youths.
The protesters have derided an agreement forged on Tuesday by the military council and mostly Islamist parties for a swifter transfer to civilian rule.
As dusk fell, thousands of people, many of them onlookers, had crowded into Tahrir, which was also the arena of protests which toppled former president Hosni Mubarak on February 11.
Vendors were selling everything from snacks to face masks for protection against wafting tear gas.
Fatihia Abdul Ezz, a 60-year-old woman, said she had come to the square for the first time after seeing images of violence.
“They [the army rulers] were with Mubarak from the start,” she said. “I came when I saw our sons being killed.”
‘Down with military rule’
Protesters unfurled a huge sign denouncing army commander Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, his deputy Sami Enan and the council that has run Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow.
“Down, down with military rule. We the people are the red line. The people want to bring down the field marshal, Sami Enan and the military council,” it read.
One man walked around the square holding aloft 10 spent tear gas shells, along with cartridge casings threaded on a string.
The overall death toll has reached 38 by a Reuters count after a man was killed in Alexandria and another died in what the state news agency MENA said was an attack on a police station in the northern town of Marsa Matrouh.
The health ministry said 32 people had been killed and 2 000 wounded in disturbances across the country of 80-million.
Faster handover to civilian rule
Tantawi promised on Tuesday that a civilian president would be elected in June, about six months sooner than the army had planned.
“Leave, leave!” responded crowds in Tahrir Square. “The people want to topple the marshal.”
The military had originally promised to return to barracks within six months of Mubarak’s removal. Its apparent reluctance to relinquish its power and privilege has fuelled frustration among Egyptians who feared their revolution had changed nothing.
Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, adjusted the schedule after generals met politicians, including leaders of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is eager to turn decades of grassroots endeavour into electoral success.
A parliamentary election, billed as Egypt’s first free vote in decades, will start on Monday as planned, Tantawi confirmed.
Voting for the upper and lower houses will be completed only in March under a complex, staggered process. Parliament will then pick an assembly to draw up a new Constitution, an exercise which the Brotherhood and its rivals are keen to influence.
France added its voice to those of UN and rights groups in denouncing the military’s handling of the protests.
France’s foreign ministry spokesperson Bernard Valero said his country “strongly condemns the excessive use of force against demonstrators” and called for elections to go ahead on time.
United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay called for an independent investigation into the bloodshed, saying the killing of protesters was inflaming the crisis.
“I urge the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, including the apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition,” Pillay said.
Referendum on military rule
Tantawi angered many youthful demonstrators by suggesting a referendum on whether military rule should end earlier, which they took as a ploy to undermine their cause by appealing to the many Egyptians who fear further upheaval.
“We have to wait and be patient with army rule. We shouldn’t have a referendum, it’s a waste of time,” said Mohamed Rasheed (62) a salesman in a Cairo jewellery shop, who pointed to discordant opinions among protesters in Tahrir.
“If we listen to them all, we are going to become like Lebanon,” he said, evoking a nation notorious for conflict.
Tantawi may calculate that most Egyptians, alarmed by turmoil that has hammered an already troubled economy, would prefer army rule to the uncertainties of a radical upheaval.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which helped organise a big protest on Friday but stayed out of subsequent demonstrations, seems willing to compromise with the military in the interest of securing a substantial voice in the new Parliament.
Some other Islamist and liberal parties, as well as three out of more than 10 declared presidential candidates, also took part in Tuesday’s crisis talks with the military council.
Tantawi has promised a national salvation government to replace Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s Cabinet, which resigned this week, but remains in a caretaker role.
Political uncertainty has battered Egypt’s finances. Foreign reserves have tumbled to $22-billion in October from $36-billion in December, just before the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted.
Egypt’s currency dipped to its lowest level in almost seven years on Wednesday and the yield on an Egyptian dollar bond soared to its highest since March, suggesting that investors are unconvinced that stability will return soon. — Reuters