Tara Todras-Whitehill, Associated Press
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.
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