Egypt back on boil, toll reaches 38

Egypt back on boil, toll reaches 38

Battlefield centred near interior ministry building

The clashes resumed despite a promise by Egypt’s military ruler to speed up a presidential election to the first half of next year, a concession swiftly rejected by tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. The military previously floated late next year or early 2013 as the likely date for the vote, the last step in the process of transferring power to a civilian government.

The standoff has plunged the country deeper into crisis less than a week before parliamentary elections, the first since the ouster nine months ago of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi tried to defuse tensions with his address late Tuesday, but he did not set a date for handing authority to a civilian government, instead offering a referendum on the immediate return of the armed forces to their barracks. The Tahrir crowd, along with protesters in a string of other cities across the nation, want Tantawi to step down immediately in favour of an interim civilian council to run the nation’s affairs until elections for a new parliament and president are held.

Street battles have centered around the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, near the iconic square, with police and army troops using tear gas and rubber bullets to keep the protesters from storming the ministry, a sprawling complex that has for long been associated with the hated police and Mubarak’s former regime.

The protesters, who have withstood tear gas and beatings, say they have no wish to storm the ministry but were trying to keep the police and army from moving on Tahrir Square.

Elnadeem Center, an Egyptian rights group known for its careful research of victims of police violence, said late on Tuesday that the number of protesters killed in clashes nationwide since Saturday is 38, nine more than the Health Ministr’s death toll. The clashes also have left at least 2,000 protesters wounded, mostly from gas inhalation or injuries caused by rubber bullets. The police deny using live ammunition.

Shady el-Nagar, a doctor in one of Tahrir’s field hospitals, said three bodies arrived in the facility on Wednesday. All three had bullet wounds. “We don’t know if these were caused by live ammunition or pellets because pellets can be deadly when fired from a short distance,” he said.

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, deplored the role of Egypt’s military and security forces in attempting to suppress protesters during the ongoing unrest.

“Some of the images coming out of Tahrir, including the brutal beating of already subdued protesters, are deeply shocking, as are the reports of unarmed protesters being shot in the head,” Pillay said. “There should be a prompt, independent investigation, and accountability for those found responsible for the abuses that have taken place should be ensured.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s strongest and best organised group, is not taking part in the ongoing protests in a move that is widely interpreted to be a reflection of its desire not to do anything that could derail a parliamentary election it is sure to dominate.

Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters, however, have defied the leadership and joined the crowds on the square.