Protesters threw rocks at troops guarding Egypt’s defence ministry on Friday as thousands marched in Cairo to denounce violence against demonstrators and the exclusion of candidates from the presidential election.
The crowd hurled insults at the soldiers sent to defend the ministry after 11 people were killed in clashes there on Wednesday, and called for the overthrow of the head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
“O Tantawi, good morning, this is your last day,” shouted the crowd, and “Field Marshal leave, the people are dangerous”.
The street violence comes less than three weeks before an election that represents the first chance for Egyptians to freely choose their leader and would mark the last step in a messy transition to democracy since the overthrow of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak 15 months ago.
Last-minute changes to the line-up of contenders, bickering over a new constitution and suspicion that the military will continue wielding power after a new president is sworn are making for a chaotic backdrop to the campaign.
Troops pressed forward when protesters began cutting through barbed wire used to seal off the ministry building in Cairo’s central Abbasiya district.
Dozens of protesters threw rocks at soldiers, who responded with water cannon. The health ministry said eight people were taken to hospital and Reuters reporters saw scores of injured protesters carried away on motorcycles.
Other protesters ripped down a metal fence at an underground railway construction site to build a barricade. Some cried “God is Greatest” as army helicopters swooped overhead.
“The crowd is coming here with sharp weapons. We have batons and water cannon and teargas to disperse them,” said one commander. “Some of them believe if they kill a soldier they will go to heaven. What do you expect us to do?”
Later the army fired teargas at the protesters, who retreated hundreds of metres from the ministry to a square, where they regrouped.
The tension rose a notch on Wednesday when unidentified assailants fired at protesters camping near the defence ministry, starting clashes that the security forces seemed unable or unwilling to quell.
Many of those protesters were hardline Salafi Islamists upset that their candidate was ruled out of the vote, which begins on May 23 and 24 with a run-off in June.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates Parliament, saw its first choice disqualified too, handing a potential advantage to Mubarak-era contenders such as former foreign minister Amr Moussa and ex-prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.
Some Egyptians see the last-minute changes to the candidate line-up as proof the generals are trying to manipulate the vote.
“Remnants of Mubarak’s regime are not eligible to assume any power,” Hashem Islam, a sheikh from Egypt’s highest authority of Sunni Islam, Al-Azhar, told protesters at the defence ministry.
Several thousand Islamists, liberals and left-wing revolutionaries also massed in Tahrir Square, headquarters of the street movement that has transformed decades of tightly-controlled Egyptian politics.
Banners draped in Tahrir demanded implementation of a law banning figures from the Mubarak era from high office. Shafiq was briefly disqualified as a result of the law, but still found his way back into the final line-up of presidential candidates.
Members of the ruling military council on Thursday renewed a pledge to exit politics after handing power to the new president by mid-year. They said the handover could come earlier in the unlikely event that no one wins outright in the first round.
But tension between the army’s interim government and the Islamist-dominated parliament has left Egypt in a state of policy paralysis that is deepening an economic crisis caused by more than a year of political turmoil. — Reuters