Egypt's turmoil plunges the restive nation toward crisis

A protester throws a gas canister towards Egyptian riot police near the interior ministry during clashes in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011.
A protester throws a gas canister towards Egyptian riot police near the interior ministry during clashes in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011. ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAIRO — Egypt plunged deeper into political crisis a week before elections with security forces attacking protesters and torching their tents Sunday amid unrest that appears to be heading toward a second uprising, this time against Egypt’s military rulers.

Thousands of young Egyptians battled security forces for a second day in the warren-like streets surrounding the iconic Tahrir Square, the nerve center of the revolt that brought down President Hosni Mubarak and left the military in charge of Egypt. Clashes and civil disobedience continued in Alexandria, Suez and other big cities as protesters expressed their solidarity with the capital.

By nightfall, 11 people were reported dead, hundreds were wounded, fires burned in the square, and Egyptians worried that the violence would force a delay in parliamentary elections and leave the ruling military council in power even longer.

The military council expressed "deep regret" over the violence and said the interim government would take unspecified "urgent measures" to restore calm before elections begin, according to communique No. 81, which was posted on the council's official Facebook page. The statement did not respond to protesters' demands for a speedy transfer of power or a revised timetable for presidential elections, but denied that it was trying to cling to power.

"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces reaffirms its unchanging principles, which it has expressed since it first took responsibility, that it does not seek to prolong the transitional period and will not allow any front to hinder the democratic transition and nation-building process," the statement said.

Earlier, Caretaker Prime Minister Essam Sharaf and the military council met for crisis talks, and one of the senior generals said there would be no delay of elections set to begin Nov. 28.

“We won’t accept any calls to postpone elections and we affirm that that the armed forces and the police are capable of securing the process and leading Egypt through this ditch we’re stuck in,” Gen. Mohsen el Fangary said in a statement to state television. “If everything moves forward in a proper manner and without the chaos and division in the political street, the armed forces will be back to their barracks before the end of 2012.”

The caretaker cabinet issued a statement reiterating its commitment to holding elections on time, even as one of its members, Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi, resigned in protest of the military’s tactics. Protesters were furious that the cabinet also announced its support of the interior ministry, which oversees the riot policemen that have been clashing with protesters.

A handful of politicians suspended their election campaigns in solidarity with the demonstrators. Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, Bouthaina Kamel, was briefly arrested in the melee, her family said in online posts.

Egypt’s influential Islamists _ the conservative Muslim Brotherhood and some of the more rigid Salafis _ allowed their members to join the battles, but didn’t issue a formal call to do so, which many activists interpreted as an attempt to play both sides in this sensitive time.

The reasoning: The Islamists can say they had a presence in the square, but their politicians will focus on campaigning and not alienating the many voters who disapprove of the continued demonstrations. Islamists, the best-organized political force, are expected to do well in the parliamentary polls.

“The Muslim Brotherhood not showing up and joining the sit-in was expected. All they need is for the elections to happen so they can gain seats in the parliament,” said Ahmed Maher, leader of the liberal April 6 Youth Movement, which was instrumental in the anti-Mubarak uprising.

Maher added that there were exceptions. Two Islamist presidential candidates, Muslim Brotherhood youth activists and Salafis who defied their clerics all joined the demonstrations.

“It’s very apparent that there will be no security during the coming elections,” said Mahmoud Fathy a candidate from the Salafi Fadila Party, which supports the protesters but opposed the idea of a long-term sit-in. “If they use such force and agitate the public over a minor legitimate protest, how would they control a nationwide electoral process?”

“I am warning every member of this cabinet and military council against any attempt at postponing or canceling elections because it would lead to very regrettable consequences _ public disobedience, civil war, you name it,” added Fathy, who joined the protesters in the square.

The unrest began this weekend after tens of thousands of Egyptians flooded downtown Cairo to demand a timetable for presidential elections and the transfer of power to a civilian authority. Security forces drove out lingering activists with batons and tear gas, enraging other revolutionaries who returned in droves to defend them.

“It’s enough,” said a gasping Mohamed Saeed, 21, as he stumbled back from the front with his eyes bright red from the tear gas. “I have to stand by my brothers, support my people.”

The past 30 hours of clashes have turned parts of downtown Cairo into a war zone covered in a thick fog of tear gas and strewn with empty gas canisters and rocks. As in the earlier uprising, protesters established lookouts and a whistle system to alert when security forces were coming.

Protesters collapsed on sidewalks from the strong tear gas. Others were carried to alleyway field clinics for treatment of broken bones, birdshot wounds and burns from searing tear-gas canisters.

Tareq Salem, a physician volunteering at one medical station, said doctors there had treated more than 1,000 wounded protesters in the past two days. The health ministry says 53 security forces were injured in the same period.

At dusk Sunday, military police charged into the square and cleared it within minutes, beating protesters and destroying their tents, with the entire episode broadcast on live television. Then the forces pulled back, and the protesters returned, the same “beat-and-retreat” strategy used when Mubarak was trying to crush the uprising that ultimately toppled him.

“They were not just dispersing us, they were beating us wildly and burning all the tents and banners in the square,” said Abdalla Saadawi, a protester who was told by field doctors that he’d suffered a mild concussion in the skirmish.

He was bleeding and needed to get to the hospital, but there were no ambulances or taxis in the dark, debris-littered streets.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent David Enders also contributed from Cairo.)

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