CAIRO — Hundreds of Egyptian protesters lobbed rocks at the security headquarters and set fire to police cars for a second day Wednesday in a flashpoint city as growing impatience over delays in trying former regime officials and police accused of killing protesters threatened to plunge the nation back into crisis.
In a bid to defuse rising anger, the Interior Ministry announced that hundreds of high-ranking police officers will be sacked for their role in the harsh crackdown on anti-government protests earlier this year that left nearly 850 people dead. Interior Minister Mansour el-Essawi said in a statement that it will be the largest shake up in the history of his ministry.
Justice for those who killed demonstrators has become a rallying point for the protest movement, nearly five months after Hosni Mubarak was ousted in an uprising after a nearly three-decade rule marred by complaints of widespread corruption and police abuse.
Many Egyptians believe that Mubarak and some of his rule's much-hated faces have been removed but the pillars of his regime are still in place, including the pivotal judiciary.
The two days of rioting in Suez — a city at the southern tip of the strategic Suez Canal that saw some of the most dramatic confrontations between police and protesters — was prompted by anger over a court order on Monday to release seven police officers charged with killing demonstrators.
Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid had promised to appeal the court order and return the police officers to jail in a bid to appease the protesters. But another court upheld the decision on Wednesday, prompting protesters to pour back into the streets.
Young men smashed the building's windows with stones and burned a number of police vehicles. Then they attacked the city's main court complex.
"The courts are corrupt. They are complicit in denying us justice," said Ahmed el-Ganadi, whose son had been killed in the earlier protests. "We will no longer wait for a court decision to get our retribution."
Protesters also are angry over Tuesday's decision to acquit three former government ministers over corruption allegations.
Many lawyers said the ruling was legally sound but cast doubt on the objectivity of the prosecutor-general, who was himself appointed under Mubarak's regime, saying he was rushing flimsy cases to court without a thorough investigation.
The rising frustration also was likely to fuel massive protests planned for Friday to demand justice for those killed as well as measures to purge former regime officials from political and economic life. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is Egypt's most organized political movement, said Wednesday that it will join the pro-democracy demonstrators set to return to Cairo's Tahrir Square for the so-called "Friday of Accountability."
Egypt's interim government issued a statement late Wednesday urging protesters to remain peaceful and warning of "anti-revolution elements" that might try to create chaos and harm the image of the demonstrators. It also promised "no reconciliation with those who shed the blood" of protesters and pledged to continue "purging" Egypt of those who Mubarak's regime remnants.
The youthful groups that launched the 18-day uprising that began on Jan. 25 and led to Mubarak's ouster have been trying to ramp up the pressure on the military rulers to follow through with promises of democratic reforms. Critics see the establishment as an extension of Mubarak's rule and worry those responsible for brutality under the old regime will go without punishment.
Only one policeman has been convicted in more than a dozen court cases over the deaths of people killed in the government crackdown on protesters. He was tried in absentia. Mubarak and his two sons also face charges of killing protesters and amassing illegal wealth. Their trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 3.
Protesters accuse court officials of generally being lax with police officers accused of shootings during the uprising, allowing many to stay on the job while facing murder charges or setting them free on bail. They say this leaves victims' families subject to intimidation.
For their part, human rights activists complain that minor offenders and protesters are referred to military tribunals — known for quick and harsh sentences.
Many in the judiciary, meanwhile, find themselves executing laws drafted under Mubarak's rule in deciding that police were acting in self-defense when they opened heavy gunfire at saboteurs attacking their stations.
Activists insist no police violence is justified and worry that authorities are again acting with excessive force in dealing with street protests. Some 1000 protesters were injured when anti-riot police rained tear gas and rocks while clashing with protesters in Tahrir square last week.
"No laws recognize the revolution; (Mubarak's) laws define revolution as riots," Amin Ramzi, a lawyer representing families of the slain protesters in Suez, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "But under any law, how come police sacrifice the souls for the sake of protecting a building. Which are more valuable: rocks or souls?"