Cairo: Egyptian armed forces and protesters clashed in Cairo on Friday, with troops firing water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators who threw stones as they tried to march on the Defense Ministry, a flashpoint for a new cycle of violence only weeks ahead of presidential elections.
For the first time in Egypt’s stormy transition, hardline Islamists were in the forefront of street fighting with the troops, a shift for groups that previously had largely stayed out of direct confrontation with the ruling military.
The clashes centered around a sit-in that has been held for a week in a square several blocks away from the Defense Ministry, mainly by ultraconservatives known as Salafis, who were protesting the disqualification of their favored candidate from the presidential election. On Wednesday, still unidentified assailants attacked the gathering, sparking clashes that killed nine.
Wednesday’s violence fuelled anger at the military and now more groups are taking to the streets.
Earlier Friday, thousands of demonstrators massed in Cairo’s downtown Tahrir Square, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and leftist movements. They demanded the generals hand over power to civilians and warned of possible vote-rigging in the presidential vote, due to start 23 May. In the afternoon, some of them marched to the Defense Ministry, several miles away across Cairo in the district of Abbasiyah.
The clashes erupted when protesters in Abbasiyah tried to cut through barbed wire between them and troops blocking access to the road that leads up to the ministry. Live footage on state TV showed troops snatching one protester, beating him with metal sticks, tearing his clothes and leaving his back bloody. Soldiers with body shield and red helmets were seen carrying a soldier who collapsed with his nose bleeding.
The troops fired water cannons at protesters and hurled stones at them to keep them from advancing. The protesters took shelter behind metal sheets snatched from a nearby construction site and hurled back stones. Others climbed the roof of a nearby university and showered soldiers with rocks from above. The troops then opened up with heavy volleys of tear gas that pushed the demonstrators back. Protesters set fire to garbage to raise smoke to lessen the impact of the gas.
After several hours, troops swept through the protesters’ camp and drove them out of the area, chasing them in armored vehicles through nearby streets.
The Health Ministry reported eight protesters were injured but ambulance workers said they carried at least 40 to hospitals. Protesters on motorcycles were rushing injured from the frontline to field hospital.
The violence has thrown the first presidential election since last year’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak into turmoil, with several candidates suspending their campaigns in protest against the military’s handling of the situation.
On Thursday, members of the military council repeated their pledge to hand power once one of the 13 presidential candidates wins, an apparent attempt to assuage concerns that they would use the violence as an excuse to stay on.
But they also warned demonstrators against holding Friday protests near the Defense Ministry and said soldiers have the right to defend their positions, sparking fears of renewal of violence.
“Self-defense is applicable against anyone who approaches a military facility. Whoever does that must endure the consequences,” Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mullah sternly warned. “The Defense Ministry, all military units and facilities are symbols of military honor and the dignity of the state, those who approach them will have themselves to blame.”