Egyptians grieve for the dead after assailants attacked a demonstration… (Mohammed Asad, Associated…)
CAIRO — At least 11 people were killed Wednesday when unknown attackers armed with guns and firebombs clashed with protesters near Egypt's Defense Ministry in an escalation of violence highlighting political divisions that threaten the country ahead of this month's presidential election.
Assailants stormed about 500 demonstrators at dawn, many of them supporters of Hazem Salah abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist preacher recently disqualified from the presidential race. Police did not intervene for hours, and authorities said as many as 200 people were wounded in the nation's worst violence in months.
The bloodshed exacerbated tension that has engulfed the country since last year's overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. The election scheduled May 23-24 is seen as a critical step in the transition to democracy. But unrest and the military's hold on power have fueled anger and political uncertainty and led to new calls for large street marches.
The clashes prompted presidential candidates, including Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a progressive Islamist, and Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood to suspend their campaigns. They criticized the military for a lack of security reminiscent of the soccer riot in Port Said in February that left more than 70 people dead.
"It's the duty of the state to protect peaceful sit-ins," Aboul Fotouh said on Twitter. "It's not the role of the citizen to face daily attempts to break the sit-in."
Hours after the melee, a number of political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, boycotted a meeting with military leaders to discuss drafting a constitution. A delayed constitution and other political problems have left the country in disarray, leading to suspicion that the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces, or SCAF, is looking for a pretext to cancel the election. A military official denied the assertion.
Further political tumult arose when campaigns announced that the country's first presidential debate, scheduled for Thursday, would be delayed a week. It was another sign of how combustible Egypt has become and how little power politicians have in setting a new course while the army remains in control.
The protesters at the Defense Ministry were a mix of Ismail backers and activists and young revolutionaries opposed to SCAF. As in previous rallies against the military, men sympathetic to the old regime or hired by unidentified forces overran protesters amid a thin police presence. Residents also reportedly joined the attacks on demonstrators.
Gunshots echoed and bloodied men beat one another with clubs, rocks and knives in a sprawling street battle. Wounded were taken to hospitals across the capital or treated on the scene by doctors. Egyptian news reports said men briefly appeared at one hospital and blocked the staff from treating the injured.
"They started attacking us from two roads," said Khaled Khoushy, a protester. "The attackers looked like commando soldiers, not like thugs we're used to seeing. They were in plainclothes, but I know they were street cops, security police and army officers. They were different."
Nobel Prize laureate and political activist Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted: "SCAF and the government unable to protect civilians or in cahoots with thugs. Egypt going down the drain."
Authorities said the deaths and injuries were caused by live ammunition and other weapons. By nightfall about 1,000 other marchers had joined the protest in the Abbasiya district. Soldiers had moved in earlier to stop the clashes but then pulled back, leaving the area guarded by about 100 state security police officers.
"We are here because we endorse many of the demands of this sit-in," said Mostafa Hagari, a member of April 6 Youth Movement. "We don't want an election or a new constitution to be made under SCAF's rule. We're seeing people getting killed in a peaceful sit-in. This is unacceptable. We are calling on SCAF to leave power now."
The army, which has frequently been blamed by human rights groups for abuses, has promised to hand power to a civilian government by July 1.