A protester runs with a tear-gas canister to throw it back toward riot police… (Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters )
Reporting from Cairo — Protests swelled in Cairo for a sixth day Wednesday as international pressure mounted on Egypt's military rulers to stop a deadly crackdown on demonstrators who have reinvigorated the defiant spirit that last winter overthrew Hosni Mubarak.
The crowds surging into Tahrir Square were a clear sign that military concessions announced Tuesday to speed up the transfer of power to democratic government did little to stem the rage against the ruling generals. Tear gas mixed with epithets as protesters and police clashed on streets littered with bullet casings, metal pipes and stones.
The unrest intensified the drama before parliamentary elections planned for Monday. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said voting would not be postponed. But the nation was layered in conflicting emotions over taking a step closer to democracy amid the bloodshed carried out by a military state criticized for spoiling a revolution that helped inspire the "Arab Spring."
The United Nations condemned the violence and called for an independent investigation into the deaths of at least 32 people and the injuring of 2,000 more since the latest clashes started in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities.
"I urge the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, including the apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition," said Navi Pillay, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights. "We are seeing another outbreak of violence by the state against its increasingly and legitimately angry citizens."
Men wearing scarves soaked in vinegar to blot tear gas and carrying rocks and Molotov cocktails surged through the streets beyond Tahrir in attempts to storm the Interior Ministry. Police held them back as clerics negotiated a truce, which quickly collapsed. Barricades rattled and security forces edged closer to the square amid the wail of ambulances and the roar of armored vehicles.
A young man carried back from the clashes on a motorcycle was declared dead in an alley next to a street fire and a pile of garbage as other protesters shouted over his body. He suffocated from tear gas, said a doctor, as wounded teenage boys headed for a makeshift hospital in a mosque.
"I love this country," said Mourad Helmy, an architect, visibly upset at the latest violence as other Egyptians in a cafe huddled around the TV trying to figure out what was happening. "If we lose Tahrir Square, then it's all over."
Days of fleeting truces and intense clashes mark the intertwined narratives of protests emanating from Tahrir: One is reminiscent of the revolution that overthrew Mubarak in February, with families roaming the square with painted faces while eating cotton candy; the other represents a front line of young men with a lot of anger, no political affiliations and warrior-like zeal aimed at reaching the Interior Ministry, the symbol of state repression.
Some of them are groups of soccer hooligans known as ultras, who appear like sudden storms from side streets and alleys. Raafat Bakaar, a civil engineer, said he and fellow demonstrators needed such protection. "The protesters tried to remain in the square but military police came and attacked us, so we can't trust them anymore," he said.
The problem with "us now is they [police] don't want us here," said Ahmed Shalpy, who had both fought on the front lines and volunteered at the field hospital set up at the Omar Makram mosque. He added: "We now are the red line. It doesn't matter how many lives we pay, but we won't leave."
But Ibrahim Kamel, who works at the Ministry of Agriculture, worried that the violence was hurting the country. Some men in the square suggested that protesters go home; that was unlikely, but the size of the crowd Wednesday night was slightly smaller than the night before.
"I don't think that protesters should confront police or get anywhere near the Interior Ministry," he said. "We all should avoid such fighting by securing the square from inside and not take our fight to anyone."
But there was no diminishment to the vitriol aimed at Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council. In a speech to the nation Tuesday, he promised to appoint a new interim Cabinet in coming days and hand power to a democratic government by July.
"Yesterday's speech was nothing," Kamel said. "It brought us back to the time when Mubarak used to address people with arrogance. Tantawi didn't mention anything about the murderers who killed protesters. There should have been a formal apology."
He added: "Changing the Cabinet will be no more than changing faces.… The army should get back to the barracks."
But deeper into the night, fires and tear gas canisters flashed in the side streets and alleys as more clerics arrived to talk peace.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau and Pearce is a special correspondent.