CAIRO — Egyptian soldiers and police set fire to protest tents in the middle of Cairo's Tahrir Square and fired tear gas and rubber bullets in a major assault Sunday to drive out thousands demanding that the military rulers quickly transfer power to a civilian government. At least three protesters were killed.
It was the second day of clashes marking a sharp escalation of tensions on Egypt's streets a week before the first elections since the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February. The military took over the country, promising a swift transition to civilian rule. But the pro-democracy protesters who led the uprising have grown increasingly angry with the ruling generals, and suspect they are trying to cling to power even after an elected parliament is seated and a new president is voted in.
The military-backed Cabinet said in a statement that elections set to begin on Nov. 28 would take place on time and thanked the police for their "restraint," language that is likely to enrage the protesters even more.
"We're not going anywhere," protester Mohammed Radwan said after security forces tried unsuccessfully to push the crowds out of Tahrir, the epicenter of the uprising. "The mood is good now and people are chanting again," he added after many of the demonstrators returned.
Two protesters were killed on Saturday, bringing the toll for two days of violence to five. The clashes were some of the worst since the uprising ended on Feb. 11.
They were also one of only a few violent confrontations to involve the police since the uprising. The black-clad police were a hated symbol of Mubarak's regime and after the uprising, they have largely stayed in the background while the military took charge of security.
The military, which took over from Mubarak, has repeatedly pledged to hand power to an elected civilian government, but has yet to set a specific date. The protests over the past two days have demanded a specific date be set.
According to one timetable floated by the army, the handover will happen after presidential elections late next year or early in 2013. The protesters say this is too long and accuse the military of dragging its feet. They want a handover immediately after the end of the staggered parliamentary elections, which begin on Nov. 28 and end in March.
But other concerns are also feeding the tensions on the street. Many Egyptians are anxious about what the impending elections will bring. Specifically they worry that stalwarts of Mubarak's ruling party could win a significant number of seats in the next parliament because the military did not ban them from running for public office as requested by activists.
The military's failure to issue such a ban has fed widely held suspicion that the generals are reluctant to dismantle the old regime, partly out of loyalty to Mubarak, their longtime mentor.
The clashes began Saturday when police tried to clear a sit-in in Tahrir by people who were wounded during the 18-day uprising and have not received medical care. Some others at the sit-in were protesting the slow pace of justice for those killed or hurt in the revolt. Clashes broke out in Cairo and other major cities and by the end of the day, two protesters were dead.
The violence resumed Sunday, when police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to try to clear about 5,000 protesters still in Tahrir. Many chanted "freedom, freedom" as they pelted police with rocks and a white cloud of tear gas hung in the air.
"We have a single demand: The marshal must step down and be replaced by a civilian council," said protester Ahmed Hani, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council and Mubarak's longtime defense minister. "The violence yesterday showed us that Mubarak is still in power," said Hani, who was wounded in the forehead by a rubber bullet.
Many of the protesters had red eyes and coughed incessantly. Some wore surgical masks to ward off the tear gas. A few fainted, overwhelmed by the gas.
Around sundown, an Associated Press reporter in Tahrir said police and troops chased the protesters out of most of the square. They set at least a dozen of the protesters' tents, along with blankets and banners, ablaze after nightfall and a pall of black smoke rose over the square as the sound of gunshots rang out.
"This is what they (the military) will do if they rule the country," one protester screamed while running away from the approaching security forces.
Protesters initially ran away in panic while being chased by army soldiers and police, hitting them with clubs. But they later regrouped at the southern entrance of the square next to the famed Egyptian museum and began to walk back to the square. Hundreds made their way back, waving the red, white and black Egyptian flags and chanting "Allahu Akbar," or God is great.
Both sides then began pelting each other with rocks.
Security forces pulled back to the outskirts of the square, where clashes were continuing into the night.
Mahmoud Said, a doctor at the nearby Munira hospital, said the bodies of two men were brought to the hospital. Mohamed Qenawy, a doctor at one of two field hospitals in the square, said a male protester in his early 20s also was killed after a blow to his head. The Health Ministry confirmed three people were killed and said more than 100 injured were treated at public hospitals.
Rocks, shattered glass and trash covered Tahrir Square and the side streets around it. The windows of the main campus of the American University in Cairo, which overlooks the square, were shattered and stores were shuttered.
"The marshal is Mubarak's dog," read freshly scrawled graffiti in the square.
An Interior Ministry statement said 55 protesters have been arrested since the violence began on Saturday and a total of 85 policemen were hurt in clashes. It said some of the protesters were using firearms, firebombs and knifes to attack security forces.
Doctors staffing two field hospitals in the square said they have treated around 700 protesters on Sunday. Alaa Mohammed, a doctor, said most of those treated suffered breathing problems or wounds caused by rubber bullets.
"The police are targeting the head, not the legs as they normally do," said Mohammed.
By Sunday evening, clashes spread to the city of Suez east of Cairo and the coast city of el-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, where police and protesters clashed on the streets.
Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.