Protesters and police fought pitched battles on Sunday at security headquarters in Cairo as deadly clashes raged into a fourth day and the interior minister leapt to the defence of his reviled forces.
The fighting was sparked by the perceived failure of Egypt’s military rulers and police to prevent deadly soccer-linked violence following a match in the north city of Port Said on Wednesday that left 74 people dead.
Clashes have been fuelled by police action, including the use of tear gas and birdshot, against protesters, with the health ministry reporting at least 12 people killed in Cairo and Suez since the violence erupted on Thursday.
Hundreds of riot police on Sunday blocked roads leading to the interior ministry headquarters in the centre of the capital, facing down youths throwing rocks and petrol bombs on several streets leading the ministry.
Police erected a concrete block wall on Mansur Street, which has become the nerve centre of the deadly clashes, while entrenching themselves behind coils of barbed wire on other roads.
“There is an insistence [by protesters] on storming the the interior ministry and implementing a plot,” said Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, whose predecessor was sacked in a Cabinet shuffle in November following similar clashes.
“Because of their insistence, we have been placed in the position of defending the ministry,” he said.
Ibrahim said police did not want to harm any “revolutionaries” among the protesters, but were prepared to confront others “who want to ruin the country”.
Earlier on Sunday, the police had moved on protesters’ positions in the rock-strewn streets, firing birdshot and arresting medics at a field hospital, one doctor, Mustafa Nabil, said. The medics were later released, he said.
The protesters denied they intended to storm the ministry, several hundred metres from Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak a year ago but left the military in charge.
“My heart burned at what happened in Port Said, and we all know that the police are responsible,” said one protester, a high school student who gave his name as Ahmed Farag.
“We don’t want to storm the ministry. We are protesting here because this is the police headquarters.”
Against the military
Marchers took to the streets nationwide on Friday to demand Egypt’s ruling generals cede power immediately, amid charges the military was deliberately sowing chaos to justify its status at the top of the political ladder.
Many of the dead in the Port Said football riot were thought to have been Ahly Ultras — supporters of Cairo’s main club al-Ahly — set upon by partisans of the local al-Masry side after the Cairo team lost 3-1.
The Ultras played a prominent role in the uprising that overthrew Mubarak, and commentators have fed speculation that pro-Mubarak forces were behind the massacre, or at least complicit in it.
Ibrahim responded to the allegation by denying in the press conference that Mubarak’s ex-interior minister Habib al-Adly, on trial with the former president for the killings of protesters during the uprising, still had influence.
“Adly is in jail now and has no followers in the ministry,” he said.
The military, headed by Mubarak’s defence minister of two decades Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, has pledged to cede full powers to civilian rule when a president is elected by the end of June.
Its opponents believe it intends to hold on to power behind the scenes after a transfer to civilian rule.
Its increasingly unpopular rule has been challenged by several bloody protests, in which dozens of people were killed between October and December, amid an increase in lawlessness and an economic downturn.
Also on Sunday, saboteurs blew up a pipeline in the Sinai Peninsula that supplies Israel with gas, the 12th such attack in a year. Security officials said gunmen planted explosives under the pipeline close to the northern town of El-Arish.
The pipeline attack came the day after an Islamist leader from the area, Mohammed Eid al-Taihi, died in a prison cell in Cairo.
Interior ministry officials said he died from a “drop in blood circulation” and forensic doctors detected no signs of torture.
Taihi was suspected of leading a militant Islamist group responsible for previous pipeline explosions and attacks on police stations in Sinai. — AFP