Cairo – After the fiercest battles in three days of street fighting with protesters, Egypt’s military-led government appeared by daybreak Sunday to have ended, at least for now, a siege of its interior ministry.
Security forces erected two new walls of cement blocks bisecting streets that had been central battlegrounds between security forces and protesters calling for the end of military rule. Riot police fired rubber bullets from armored vehicles to force protesters away from the ministry so that the walls could be erected.
They were the fifth and sixth such walls built across streets in the vicinity of Tahrir Square and the interior ministry in its so-far futile attempts to suppress a series of such battles since October. Along with the tableau of burned out buildings and cars, rubble strewn streets, and a thick dust of settled tear gas, the maze of barriers has completed the picture of a virtual war zone in the heart of the capital.
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Military police and security forces have now killed 100 demonstrators in the course of those battles, according to official statements, including those who died in the last three days of fighting. Health officials said over the weekend that 12 protesters had been killed since Thursday in fighting fueled by anger at the failure of the police to prevent a deadly soccer riot in Port Said Wednesday night.
The inability of the military-led government to diminish the violence raised new questions about its legitimacy during this paradoxical new stage in Egypt’s transition, celebrating the seating of the first freely elected Parliament in more than six decades but still under martial law.
A civilian advisory council appointed by Egypt’s military rulers to help put a civil face on their authority urged Saturday that the generals respond to the violence by moving up the transfer of power by one or two months from the current deadline in June. The panel recommended expediting planned presidential elections so that the military could still hand authority to a new president.
But there was also a suggestion that the new Parliament, dominated by the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, might side with the military on the need to quiet the protests. State news media reported that a parliamentary committee on national security led by a senior Brotherhood figure recommended after an emergency session on Saturday that the government build a wall in front of the Interior Ministry and shoot anyone who crossed it. That report could not be confirmed independently.
After holding their fire for most of the day, protesters and the police struck at each other with new force on Saturday evening. Crowds of protesters whistled and cheered as fire bombs exploded near the police lines around the Interior Ministry. They stripped the branches off trees in the area to use the wood for bonfires, then they hurled burning branches at the police. By 9 p.m., protesters had also broken up more than a block of sidewalk to use the pieces as missiles.
The police, who for two days had stuck to defending the Interior Ministry headquarters, went on the offensive. Crossing the front line for the first time, they chased protesters with an armored personnel carrier, firing tear gas and birdshot from its turret. Then squads of riot police began advancing on foot, wielding shotguns and firing birdshot up and down a main thoroughfare of the district to clear it of protests, though moments later the police had retreated and protesters returned in full force.
It was unclear how many people might have been killed or injured on Saturday night in Cairo, or in Alexandria, Suez and other cities where protests continued. Health Ministry officials said around midday Saturday in the Egyptian state media that seven protesters had died in Suez and five in Cairo. A main government tax building, near the Interior Ministry and overlooking the thickest fighting in the capital, was badly damaged by a fire started during clashes on Friday night.
The new outbreak of violence occurred after a long, tense standoff that for a time seemed emblematic of this fraught moment in Egypt’s political transition. On one side, the Muslim Brotherhood, which now leads the Parliament, is morphing from the opposition into the establishment. On the other, half-politicized groups of die-hard soccer fans, known here as ultras, are now the vanguard of the Egyptian uprising and are waging a campaign of attacks on the Interior Ministry around the country, seeking revenge because the police allowed the riot that killed more than 70 fellow fans after a match in Port Said.
For most of the day, groups of middle-aged men — almost everyone said the leaders belonged to the Brotherhood, although the men themselves demurred — moved among the young and angry but mostly quiet crowd, urging them to return in peace to Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of Egypt’s peaceful uprising.
“I am not a coward, I am not a coward,” the older men chanted. “Legitimacy comes from the square.” Younger demonstrators, yearning for the peaceful early days of the revolution, often joined them in the chant.
Civilian men linked arms to form their own barriers in front of the police line so that they could hold back those who would charge in or throw rocks.
Other political activists said they were waiting for the fighting to start again. “Some of the Muslim Brothers are coming to tell us to go back to the square,” said Nourhan Mahmoud, a 19-year-old pharmacist resting at a makeshift field hospital while she waited for more casualties. “But this is not the time to go back to the square and just wait like beggars for what they give us, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are trying to divide the cake between them. They both can’t be trusted.”
Then, about 3 p.m., two groups of hundreds of young men arrived from opposite directions beating the distinctive drums and waving the flags of the ultras. They quickly swarmed past the first civilian cordon and pushed to within 10 feet of the riot police, some hurling rocks.
Cooler heads struggled for nearly an hour to turn them back. But there was too much animosity on both sides of the line. By 4:30 p.m., the battle was in full swing once again.