At least two people were killed and at least 220 others were injured when Egyptian military police troops clashed with petrol bomb-throwing protesters against military rule in Cairo on Friday, the state TV reported, as the worst violence in weeks overshadowed the count in the second phase of a landmark general election.
Clashes continued on Qasr al-Aini Street on Friday evening, with protesters reporting hearing gunshots, and protesters and military forces throwing stones at each other.
“One person died of suspected gunshot wounds,” Hisham Shiha, a health ministry official, told the state television, adding that 105 people had been hospitalized and another 68 treated at the scene of the violence.
32 security forces personnel were also wounded, including an officer, as soldiers repeatedly attempted to break up a sit-in outside the Cabinet’s offices demanding an immediate transition to civilian rule, state television reported.
The clashes, which raged since dawn, were the bloodiest since five days of protests in November killed 42 people just ahead of Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in February.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) advisory council will try to urge the SCAF to issue a statement to explain the clashes today,” presidential hopeful Mohammed Selim al-Awa told Egypt’s daily al-Masry al-Youm.
Presidential hopeful Mohammed ElBaradei criticized the way military police broke up the sit-in outside the Cabinet building, describing it as “barbaric” and “brutal.” According to al-Masry al-Youm, ElBaradei described Friday events as “the greatest violation to all human laws.”
“This is not the way countries should be managed,” ElBaradei was quoted by the newspaper as saying, in clear reference to the country’s military rulers.
ElBaradei also criticized the advisory council, saying it was “just a front” for the SCAF.
Reports buzzing across social media
In a pattern of spreading violence that has become a familiar refrain during nine months of army rule since President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, protesters regrouped in growing numbers as resentment at security forces’ tactics grew.
By early afternoon, troops were trying to disperse around 10,000 protesters with truncheons and what witnesses said appeared to be cattle prods that they used to give electric shocks to some of the demonstrators, according to Reuters.
Ambulance sirens wailed, reports of beatings of well-known democracy activists buzzed across social media and politicians from Islamists to liberals lined up to condemn the army's heavy-handed tactics.
“The ongoing clashes around the Cabinet building and Qasr al-Aini Street are meant to create chaos, as each time Egypt is close to achieving stability, a new problem is created,” al-Masry al-Youm quoted a military source.
“An army officer has been injured by a live bullet and transferred to a military hospital as a result of the clashes,” the source added.
“There are desperate attempts aiming to undermine Egypt’s stability and drag the country into chaos, especially during the parliamentary elections,” the source said.
Refused to comment on the clashes, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri canceled all his meetings to monitor the situation, holding phone calls with the SCAF and Interior Ministry officials.
In Friday’s disturbances, cars were set alight and part of a state building was torched.
Troops and unidentified men in plainclothes hurled rocks from the roof of one parliament building on protesters who threw stones, shards of glass and petrol bombs.
Anti-military and anti-police chants
Demonstrators piled car tires and plastic materials in the street and set them alight to send up plumes of black smoke and block the view of the street from above.
As the clashes escalated, protesters sang anti-military and anti-police chants, known to be primarily sung by ultras — or hardcore football fans.
Some 200 protesters have continued to sleep outside the cabinet building to oppose the appointment of Ganzouri. The sit-in began on Nov. 24, when the military council nominated Ganzouri to be prime minister. Ganzouri had served as prime minister under the toppled regime of Mubarak.
Blogger Mostafa Hussein said demonstrators managed to reach the lobby of the Cabinet offices after breaking down the front gate, but were pushed back by a large number of troops.
An AFP correspondent saw bloodied protesters being carried away by comrades and a string of arrests made.
Troops later released some of the detained demonstrators.
Leading activist Nur Nur, son of former presidential candidate Ayman Nur, emerged from behind the military police cordon limping and with a cut and large bruise to his head.
“When the military police rushed us, a girl behind me tripped up and fell,” he said.
“I stopped to help her, and the soldiers beat us with sticks for about two minutes and then dragged us off into the parliament building.”
A military official blamed protesters for the violence, telling AFP soldiers involved in the clashes had been tasked with protecting the cabinet and did not try to break up the sit-in.
The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, ordered that everyone injured in the fighting be treated in army hospitals, state television said.
To hell with you and your parliament
An army source told Reuters that 32 security personnel who were guarding the parliament were also injured trying to stop protesters breaking into the building.
Ziad al-Elaimy, a leading figure in the liberal Egyptian Bloc who ran for parliament in Cairo, said he was beaten by security forces when he arrived to witness the scene.
When he protested, army officers told him: “To hell with you and your parliament,” according to Elaimy.
The six-week vote for the lower house of parliament has been mostly peaceful since it began on Nov. 28. A big first-round turnout took some of the steam out of street protests aimed at pressuring the military to hand power immediately to civilians.
Those protests descended into days of clashes near Tahrir Square, prompting the army-backed government to resign and the ruling generals to pledge to step aside by the end of June 2012.
A new Cabinet is due on Sunday to hold a first full meeting since it was sworn in on Dec. 7 and plans to weigh new austerity measures to address a wider-than-expected budget deficit.
Protesters have occupied an area outside the Cabinet office since late November, forcing the government to meet elsewhere. They said they were provoked into violence by the army, which was looking for an excuse to move in and break up the sit-in.
They said fighting flared after images were posted online of an activist who took part in the sit-in -- named as Abboudi Ibrahim -- being supported by a crowd, his face badly bruised and eyes swollen and shut after he was detained by military police.
Protester Bebars Mohammed, 19, said he was at the sit-in when military police grabbed Ibrahim.
“The army pushed us away from Parliament Street and burnt the tents. They threw rocks and glass on us,” he said.
Vote count underway
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which has dominated the parliamentary election so far, condemned “the assault on protesters and the attempt to disperse them.”
It called on the military to protect the protesters from the men showering them with rocks from rooftops.
The count was under way on Friday in the second stage of elections for the lower house of parliament. A third stage next month will be followed by a similar three-phase election to the upper house before the presidential vote.
As in the first phase last month, Islamist parties were leading the liberals, according to initial results, state media reported.
The flagship state-owned daily al-Ahram reported a close race between the two main Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and ultra-conservative Salafist movement’s al-Nur.
The main liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, appeared to have garnered even fewer votes than it did in the first round, when it won about 13 percent, al-Ahram reported.
The FJP, which was founded by the Brotherhood after Mubarak's ouster, won more than 36 percent of the vote in the first round, followed by al-Nur’s 24 percent.
The Muslim Brotherhood had been widely forecast to triumph as the country's best organized political movement, well known after decades of charitable work and its endurance through repeated crackdowns by the Mubarak regime.
The good showing by the Salafists has been a surprise, raising fears of a more conservative and overtly religious legislature.
(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)