'On the brink'
Attacks against protesters in front of the Ministry of Defence headquarters in Abbasiya could derail the transition of power, reports Mohamed Abdel-Baky
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With plumes of smoke from live ammunition still lingering in the air, and pockets of people continuing to hurl stones and rocks at each other, Abbasiya yesterday looked like a war zone. Unofficial reports say up to 20 people were killed in clashes in front of the nearby Defence Ministry. The fighting that turned deadly leaves a turbulent Egypt with many questions unanswered
For two days protesters staging a sit-in before the Defence Ministry in Abbasiya have come under attack from unidentified assailants who have been using rocks, Molotov cocktails, birdshot and teargas canisters.
Unofficial reports say 20 people have been killed and approximately 150 injured since the plain clothed attackers began their assault against protesters on Tuesday. The Health Ministry, however, said that only seven were killed and 52 injured. A field hospital that has treated many of the injured says the death toll is likely to be higher.
The sit-in, which began as a protest by supporters of disqualified Salafi presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, is quickly turning into a demonstration against military rule. The escalation is now threatening the timetable for the handover of power from the generals to a civilian president.
"What is happening in Abbasiya could leave Egypt on the brink. Besieging the Ministry of Defence headquarters has nothing to do with freedom of expression and could lead the country into a spiral of violence," says writer and political analyst Hisham Qassam.
He added that the political process is now on hold, including presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution, meaning the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) could remain in power beyond the time-tabled handover.
Military police and central security forces have set up barricades to separate the protesters and their as yet unidentified assailants.
"Eight armoured personnel carriers from the Military Central Zone entered the Abbasiya area to stop fighting between protesters, not to disperse the peaceful demonstrators. However, protesters attacked the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces have orders to hold their ground," an army statement said.
Cairo security chief Major General Hassan Mourad says he negotiated with the protesters to halt the clashes. According to media reports, gunshot fire has stopped and the unidentified attackers have retreated to the side streets.
In an attempt to halt the clashes dozens of activists began a march to Abbasiya from Fateh Mosque in Ramses Square but were prevented by the army from entering the area. The thwarted marchers shouted "down with the military rule" and called for the prosecution of SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his deputy, Chief of Staff Sami Anan.
Several presidential candidates have announced they will suspend their campaigns to protest against the ongoing clashes.
"The state has to protect peaceful protests. It is not the citizen's duty to fight attempts to disperse sit-ins," said leading Islamist candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.
The Muslim Brotherhood's website IkhwanOnline announced that Mohamed Mursi's campaign would be halted for two days in protest at the violence.
"SCAF and the government are responsible for the bloodshed and the killing of our youth. The criminals who attacked the protesters must be arrested," said the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in a statement.
Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi defended the right to hold peaceful protests on Twitter.
"We will not accept the spilling of blood or any refusal of the right to stage peaceful protests. We will protect our youth," wrote Sabahi.
Leftist presidential candidate Khaled Ali also announced his intention to halt campaigning. "The media has succeeded in distorting the image of the revolutionaries and their sit-in, alienating them from the general public which has, in turn, resulted in some people justifying the use of violence against them," said Ali.
Ali visited Abbasiya on Wednesday, joining the sit-in and chanting "down, down, military council".
Opposition leader Mohamed El-Baradei blasted the army on Twitter. "Massacre in front of the Ministry of Defence shows that the government is weak and unable to protect civilians," he wrote. "Egypt is going down the drain."
El-Baradei urged the military council and the Kamal El-Ganzouri government to resign. "Egypt is dying in your hands," he tweeted.
In the wake of the violence attempts to overcome the stalemate over the formation of a new constituent assembly to draft Egypt's post-25 January Revolution constitution, and to defuse growing tensions between the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and other political forces, have ground to a halt.
Some political leaders have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of seeking to use the bloodshed in Abbasiya to further their partisan agenda. Others have accused the Islamists of attempting to provoke SCAF into staging a military coup in the hopes that in the ensuing confusion they will be able to seize power.
SCAF has responded to its critics by announcing that it might hand over power earlier than scheduled.
MP Mustafa Bakri quoted Sami Anan as saying that SCAF will transfer power on 24 May if a president is elected in the first round. Bakri furthered, "Anan said rumours that SCAF wants to postpone the transfer of power are false. The army can't wait to go back to barracks." (see p.6)