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Bloodshed at Tahrir Square widens the rift between Egyptians and military

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Clashes between police and protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square erupted for a third day Monday while the death toll rose to 33, amid fears Egypt’s first vote since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak could be at risk.

Police and military forces sporadically used batons, tear gas and birdshots to try to clear the central square of thousands of protesters demanding that the ruling military cede power to a civilian authority.

By mid-morning Monday large crowds were again streaming to Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of demonstrations that toppled Mubarak in February, correspondents said.

Egyptian medical sources said 33 people had died since clashes broke out on Saturday, kicking off a brutal countdown to the country’s Nov. 28 parliamentary elections, the first since the end of Mubarak’s 30-year-rule.

With just a week before voting in the first free parliamentary election in decades, the confrontations in the capital and other cities raised worries about how smooth voting will be.

The ruling military council in a statement read out on state television, said it “regretted” what was happening. It said it was committed to honoring the timetable for elections.

Protesters camped out for a third night on Monday in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 28-day uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule, Reuters reported.

Minister resignation

Egypt’s culture minister resigned in protest at the government response to the demonstrations, the official MENA agency said on Monday.

Emad Abu Ghazi handed his resignation to the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces − which took power when Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February − “in protest at the government’s handling of the recent events in Tahrir Square,” MENA said.

Parliamentary vote to start Nov. 28

Egyptians are scheduled to elect a new parliament in a staggered vote that starts on Nov. 28, but even when the assembly is picked, presidential powers will remain with the army until a presidential poll, which may occur late 2012 or early 2013. Protesters want a much swifter transition.

Tear gas has rained down on demonstrators and police have beaten them with batons in a bid to end the protest. Angry protesters brandished spent shotgun cartridges and bullet casings on Sunday, although police denied using live rounds.

Police backed by army officers fired salvoes of gas canisters and charged demonstrators in the square as darkness fell on Sunday, temporarily sending protesters fleeing.

Internet video clips, which could not be independently verified, showed police beating protesters with sticks, pulling them by the hair and, in one case, dumping what appeared to be a corpse on piles of rubbish.

But demonstrators swiftly regrouped in side-streets and returned to take control of the square.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades who is currently leading the army council, has become a target of protests.

“The people want the toppling of the Field Marshal,” protesters frequently chanted.

Nationwide protests

In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, a funeral procession for one of the victims degenerated into clashes with the police who fired volleys of tear gas at mourners, the official MENA news agency reported.

In the canal city of Suez, troops fired live rounds into the air to stop protesters from storming a police station in the city center, AFP reported.

Protests also broke out in the central cities of Qena and Assiut, a security official said, adding that 55 people had been arrested nationwide.

The demonstration that began on Friday was initially led by Islamists, angry at a bid by the army-backed cabinet to lay down principles for a new constitution that would have kept the army out of the control of a future civilian government.

But since then, the protest has largely been driven by the same youthful activists who galvanized Egyptians to bring down Mubarak, putting national pride before religion.

One of those groups, April 6 youth movement, told Egypt’s state news agency it would stay in Tahrir Square and continue sit-ins in other cities until its demands were met, including a call for a presidential vote no later than April.

Other demands include replacing the current cabinet with a national salvation government and an immediate investigation into the clashes in Tahrir and trial of those implicated in it.

Presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist, told protesters in Tahrir Square: “We are demanding as the minimum that power be handed over within six months.”

Army denies a desire to cling to power

The army has denied any desire to cling onto power and says it will not let any violence delay the parliamentary poll. It insists it can ensure security during the vote.

“We are all insisting on having the election on time -- the government, parties and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy told Reuters.

Earlier Mohsen al-Fangari, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, insisted the election would go ahead as planned and that the authorities were able to guarantee security.

“We will not give in to calls to delay the elections. The armed forces and the interior ministry are able to secure the polling stations,” Fangari told a talk show on the Egyptian satellite channel al-Hayat.

But analysts say a surge in violence in voting, a common feature of elections in Mubarak’s era of rigged polls, could undermine the assembly's legitimacy if the result is questioned and deepen public frustration at the army’s handling of the transition.

“Wearing the mask” of Mubarak

The April 6 youth movement said Egypt’s ruling military council was now “wearing the mask” of Mubarak.

“All the masks are falling off, one after another. The mask of Mubarak, who is now ruling the country, has been unveiled,” the movement stated on its Facebook page.

“After the Egyptian people taught him a lesson, Mubarak has maintained his arrogant attitude, expanded his tyranny and continued to brutally repress the people who were injured during the January revolution.”

The April 6 movement went on to say that its members would not leave the square until the entire cabinet, appointed by the military council, stepped down.

“The following are our unyielding demands: the dismissal Essam Sharaf’s failed Cabinet, especially Interior Minister Mansour al-Essawy; formation of a unity government tasked with saving the country, which should be granted full authority, without any kind of intervention from SCAF; that presidential polls be held no later than April of next year; and laws to guarantee the right of protesters to stage sit-ins.

The Maspero Youth Coalition took a similar position, denouncing the use of what it called “unjustified violence” against peaceful protesters and calling for a swift transfer of executive power to an elected civilian authority.
“We support the demands of fellow political forces to form a new government, sack the Essam Sharaf government and hand over authority,” it said.

Minutes after the police attacked protesters in Tahrir Square Sunday evening, the political bureau of the Movement issued a statement on its website vowing to remain inside Tahrir Square with all revolutionaries until Sharaf's government falls and the creation of a national salvation cabinet, according to the state-run al-Ahram daily.

Calling for national salvation council

Presidential hopefuls Mohammed ElBaradei and Abdallah al-Ashaal denounced violence against protesters and called for a national salvation government, state news agency MENA said.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called for calm, urging all political forces to press forward with the democratic process.

He called for “utmost restraint, while stressing the right of expression and peaceful demonstration,” in a statement.

Arabi urged all political forces “to work for calm and return to the political process and move forward with the process of democratic change based on the principles of freedom, dignity and social justice on which the January 25 revolution was founded.”

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, urged Egypt’s interim authority to halt the violence.

British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt condemned the clashes and said the deaths were “deeply regrettable.”


(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)