CAIRO — In the deadliest outbreak of violence in weeks, at least 11 protesters were killed and at least 150 wounded early Wednesday outside the Defense Ministry in Cairo in clashes with civilian attackers, putting Egypt’s presidential election and already-fragile democratic transition in further turmoil.
Several Islamist presidential candidates announced Wednesday that they were suspending their campaigns – some for 48 hours and some indefinitely – in response to the violence and the military-run government’s apparent unwillingness to stop it. Officials also canceled the first presidential debate, which had been scheduled for Thursday. Egypt’s presidential election is May 23-24.
Gen. Sami Anan, the chief of staff for the army, attempted to reassure protesters, appearing in the late afternoon and pledging that the military, which has ruled by decree since the ouster last year of former President Hosni Mubarak, would give up power immediately after the election.
Witnesses said that many of the protesters had been stabbed and shot in the head and neck. Dr. Tarek Saed, the head of the area field hospital, who was there throughout the night, said five cases of fatal injuries had arrived in 10 minutes.
“No one cared about the blood being shed,” a frustrated Saed said.
The clashes were likely to further erode the reputation of the military, which many Egyptians think is stirring up violence to delay the election and prolong its rule, which began after Mubarak resigned in February 2011.
The protesters, many of them supporters of disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist, had been holding a sit-in outside the Defense Ministry in the middle-class Cairo neighborhood of Abbasiyah, calling for an end to military rule.
Around midnight, “thugs” began attacking them, killing at least five immediately. Hours later, the military staged four tanks outside the perimeter of the fighting, but the security forces made no effort to stop the attacks.
Protesters said the attack reminded them of the infamous assault on anti-Mubarak demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last year by thugs riding camels, which the security forces also had failed to stop.
Who the “thugs” were remained unclear. Some protesters said they thought the security forces had paid the attackers or that they had the tacit backing of the military. Others suspected they were frustrated residents trying to get rid of protesters.
“We have been beaten up for over three days. They (the military) came now only to defend the thugs,” said Tarek Galal, a 30-year-old merchant. “If they believed the thugs could break up the sit-in, the military would let them do it.”
Medical student Sayed Faithy, 20, who’d joined the protest three days ago, was among those who thought the military had sanctioned the attack in an effort to delay the elections.
“Why before every election do massacres happen?” he asked. Then he answered his own question: “They don’t want to transfer power.”
At a news conference hours after the violence, Mohamed Mursi, the presidential candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political group, said he’d suspend his campaign for 48 hours. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who’s running his own candidacy for the presidency, said he’d suspend his campaign indefinitely.
Hossam Khairallah of the Democratic Peace Party and Abul Ezz el Hariry of the People’s Social Alliance Party also announced that they were pausing their presidential campaigns.
“This could lead to attacks on the Defense Ministry, which will force the army to announce a military coup in defense of themselves and their position,” Hariry said.
Hariry called on all political powers to return to a full strike in Tahrir Square.
By evening, 13 political parties officially had joined the protest and thousands of demonstrators had regrouped and were moving back toward the Defense Ministry, saying they were prepared to confront the thugs again.
Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this article.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.