CAIRO — Thousands of police clashed with protesters for control of downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square on Saturday after security forces tried to stop activists from staging a long-term sit-in there. The violence took place just nine days before Egypt's first elections since the ouster of longtime President Hosni Mubarak in February.
In scenes reminiscent of the 18-day uprising, protesters and police forces hurled rocks at each other, and crowds swarmed an armored police truck, rocking it and setting it ablaze. Black smoke rose over the crowd.
Witnesses said the violence began when riot police dismantled a small tent camp set up to commemorate protesters killed in the uprising and attacked around 200 peaceful demonstrators who had camped out in the square overnight.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday to denounce Egypt's ruling military council, which has been heavily criticized for its oversight of Egypt's bumpy transition period. Protesters are angry with attempts by the military to give themselves special powers over a future elected government.
Police were firing rubber bullets, tear gas and beating protesters with batons to clear the area on Saturday, said Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, an engineer who joined in the protest after a call went out on Twitter telling people to come down to Tahrir.
Abdel-Mohsen said a friend was wounded by a rubber bullet that struck his head and that she saw another protester wounded by a pellet shot in his neck.
"Violence breeds violence," Abdel-Mohsen said. "We are tired of this and we are not leaving the square."
Saturday's confrontation was one of the few since the uprising to involve police forces, which have largely stayed in the background while the military takes charge of security. There was no military presence in and around the square on Saturday.
The black-clad police were a hated symbol of Mubarak's regime.
Protesters ran from police into surrounding side streets only to charge back into the square. Protests continued into the evening.
"We are using side streets to pretend to run errands, but we are just regrouping and going back," said Abdel-Mohsen.
The number of protesters swelled to several thousand as news of the scuffles spread in the city, and thousands more riot police streamed into Tahrir Square, blocking entrances and clashing with protesters.
Crowds chanted: "Riot police are thugs and thieves" and "Down with the Marshal," referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler.
While the military tolerates daytime demonstrations in the central square, a symbol of the country's Jan. 25-Feb. 11 uprising, it claims long-term occupation paralyzes the city.
Activist Mona Seif said Saturday's attacks on protesters were unwarranted.
"This violence is the same as the old regime," Seif said. "Police are telling us they are carrying out orders to beat us until we leave."
Seif is the sister of prominent blogger and activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is in jail after refusing to answer questions over his alleged role in sectarian clashes. He leads a campaign to end the trials of civilians in military courts.
Rights groups estimate that up to 12,000 people have been tried in military courts since Mubarak was ousted.
"The idea that constant protests are a nuisance and a problem is just wrong. It's the right of people to protest and protests should not be cleared out like this, we were not blocking traffic," Seif said.
It is unclear how many people were wounded or arrested Saturday. An Associated Press cameraman saw police arrest three people who refused to leave.
The scene was starkly different from a day earlier, when thousands of Islamists and liberals gathered to confront Egypt's military council.
It was the largest crowd in months. The protest focused on a document which would give the generals special powers over a future elected government. The military took control after Mubarak was ousted in February and had promised to return the country to civilian rule within six months.
Most rallies in Tahrir Square since Mubarak's ouster have been led by liberal- or left-leaning groups, but Islamists dominated on Friday.
While united against giving the army new powers, Islamists and liberals are jockeying among themselves for votes in crucial parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on Nov. 28.
The stakes are higher for all sides than at any time since the uprising. The victors will help choose who will draft a new constitution, thus defining the character of post-revolutionary Egypt.