Fierce clashes stoke tensions ahead of Egypt vote (AP) Associated Press) By HAMZA HENDAWI CAIRO, EGYPT 05/02/12 7:24 pm ET)
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CAIRO – Egypt´s worst violence in months escalated the confrontation
between political forces and the ruling military ahead of a landmark
presidential election, as suspected army supporters attacked mainly
Islamist protesters outside the Defense Ministry Wednesday, sparking
clashes that left at least 11 people dead.
Political parties swiftly blamed the ruling generals for the
bloodshed and vowed the election must go ahead as planned to ensure
the military´s removal from power.
Egypt has been plagued by sporadic bouts of deadly violence since the
ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak last year, but
Wednesday´s killings took on added significance, coming just three
weeks ahead of the presidential election. The killings also provided
opponents of the military with more evidence the generals who took
over from Mubarak are badly bungling the shift to democratic rule and
acting much like their former mentor.
"We blame the military council for the bloodshed," Islamist lawmaker
Osama Yassin of the Muslim Brotherhood´s Freedom and Justice Party
told state television.
Around 1,000 protesters have been camped outside the Defense Ministry
for days demanding an end to military rule. Most are supporters of
disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an
ultraconservative Islamist barred from running because his late
mother held dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship, making him ineligible
under election laws.
But the violence, which broke out at dawn, prompted other factions to
join in. Throughout the day, thousands marched to the site of the
clashes in the Cairo district of Abbasiyah, protesting into the
evening surrounded by armored vehicles and lines of riot police.
The fundamentalist Brotherhood, Egypt´s strongest movement, quickly
moved to try to reap political gains from what has turned into a
growing confrontation between it and the military. In a statement, it
held the military responsible and warned that Egyptians would
show "no mercy" if the generals did not meet what it called the
The Brotherhood urged a new mass protest on Friday in Cairo´s Tahrir
Square to ensure the military hands over power by July 1 as promised.
The Brotherhood has been frustrated that its domination of
parliament — where it holds nearly half the seats — has not
translated into political power because the military has kept
executive rule in its own hands.
Their increasingly bitter quarrel has centered on the military-backed
government led by Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri. The Brotherhood
has demanded that the military dismiss the government and allow the
Islamist majority in parliament to form a new one. The generals have
so far ignored the calls, and in response Parliament Speaker Saad el-
Katatni, a Brotherhood leader, suspended the chamber´s sessions for a
week on Sunday in protest.
The Brotherhood was also dealt a severe blow when a court last month
suspended a 100-member panel formed by parliament to draft a new
constitution. The panel was dominated by the Brotherhood and other
Islamists, and the generals are pushing lawmakers to come up with an
acceptable method of selection for a new panel.
The Brotherhood´s party leader, Mohammed Morsi, is one of three front-
runners in the presidential race, along with former foreign minister
Amr Moussa and a moderate Islamist, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh. The first
round of voting is set for May 23-24.
But many fear the military will try to retain a say in politics even
after handing over power to the election winner.
Seeking to allay fears the military might push back the handover and
cling to power, Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Anan said the military was
ready to step down if the election produces an outright winner — a
highly unlikely scenario. None of the 13 candidates is expected to
secure at least 50 percent of the vote, meaning a runoff between the
top two contenders is likely on June 16-17.
To protest Wednesday´s violence, several presidential candidates
temporarily suspended their campaigns. Several key political parties,
including the Brotherhood, also boycotted a meeting with the generals.
"It is not possible for us to talk now, while blood is being shed
just meters away," said Essam el-Erian, a senior figure in the
Brotherhood´s political party.
Nevertheless, the ruling military council met with the other
political factions to discuss efforts to create a new constitutional
The violence also led to the cancellation of the first presidential
debate, between Moussa and Abolfotoh, which had been scheduled for
nationwide broadcast Thursday night.
In many ways, Wednesday´s clashes were a repeat of previous violence
over the 14 months since Mubarak´s ouster — a peaceful, anti-military
demonstration set upon by armed men as police or army troops looked
on without intervening.
On Wednesday, the army and police did not move for hours to separate
the two sides.
Of the 11 killed, nine died of gunshots to the head and two suffered
stabbing wounds, according to medical officials and police reports.
The gunshots to the head suggested sniper fire.
Theories of who is behind the attacks of the past year have varied,
with many activists blaming plainclothes police, army troops or petty
criminals working for the police. Others spoke of hard-core Mubarak
loyalists or thugs hired by Mubarak-era businessmen who have been
hurt by the overthrow of the regime.
Abbasiyah residents and the protesters traded accusations of tit-for-
tat attacks and intimidation.
"Salafis attacked us and our houses. They sealed off our streets,
checking our IDs and damaging our shops and pharmacies. We were
afraid. I am forced to arm myself," said one resident, driver Essam
Bakheit. "They say we are thugs but I swear we are not. I was born
here. They are liars."
Mohammed Fathi, a bearded Abu Ismail supporter, said the protesters
did not instigate the violence. "Every night since we held our first
day of protest, thugs climb the bridge above us and shower us with
bombs and gunshots," he said.
The clashes broke out at dawn when assailants set upon several
hundred protesters, security officials and witnesses said. The
clashes resumed later in the morning, but then stopped again when
lines of black-clad riot police and army troops backed by armored
vehicles finally moved in to separate the two sides at noon.
"The army´s intervention has come hours too late," Amnesty
International spokesman Philip Luther said in a statement. "There
appears to be no will within Egypt´s ruling Supreme Council of the
Armed Forces to prevent these tragic events."
Sami Mahmoud, a 42-year-old Abbasiyah resident, said he was standing
guard outside his building early Wednesday when a group of armed men
roamed the streets shooting in the air and at balconies.
"Nobody protected us. The military and police didn´t intervene. They
let us down," he said. ___ AP correspondents Maggie Michael and Sarah
El Deeb contributed to this report. (© 2012 The Associated Press
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