CAIRO — Egyptian police clashed with anti-government protesters for a fifth day in central Cairo Wednesday as a rights group raised the overall death toll from the ongoing unrest to 38.
The clashes came one day after tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square rejected a promise by Egypt's military ruler to speed up a presidential election to the first half of next year. The military previously has floated late next year or early 2013 as the likely date for the vote, the last step in the process of transferring power to a civilian government after Hosni Mubarak's ouster.
In a televised address late Tuesday, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi did not set a date for handing authority to a civilian government, but instead offered a referendum on the immediate return of the armed forces to their barracks.
The Tahrir crowd, along with protesters in a string of other cities across the nation, want Tantawi to step down immediately in favor of an interim civilian council to run the nation's affairs until elections for a new parliament and president are held.
Wednesday's street battles centered around the heavily fortified Interior Ministry, near the iconic square, with police and army troops using tear gas and rubber bullets to keep the protesters from storming the ministry, a sprawling complex that has for long been associated with the hated police and Mubarak's former regime.
The protesters say they have no wish to storm the ministry but were preventing the police and army from evicting them from Tahrir by pinning them down a safe distance away from the massive plaza.
Elnadeem Center, an Egyptian rights group known for its careful research of victims of police violence, said late Tuesday that the number of protesters killed in clashes nationwide since Saturday is 38, nine more than the Health Ministry's death toll. The clashes also have left at least 2,000 protesters wounded, mostly from gas inhalation or injuries caused by rubber bullets fired by the army and the police. The police deny using live ammunition.
Shady el-Nagar, a doctor in one of Tahrir's field hospitals, said three bodies arrived in the facility on Wednesday. All three had bullet wounds. "We don't know if these were caused by live ammunition or pellets because pellets can be deadly when fired from a short distance," he said.
The five days of clashes are the longest spate of uninterrupted violence since the 18-day uprising that toppled the former regime in February, deepening the country's economic and security woes. the unrest also threatens to cloud the country's first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections since Mubarak's February ouster, which are scheduled to begin on Nov. 28.
In his address, Tantawi rejected all criticism of the military's handling of the transitional period and sought to cast himself and the generals on the military council he heads as the nation's foremost patriots. Significantly, he made no mention of the protesters gathered in Tahrir Square or elsewhere in the country.
"Our demands are clear," said Khaled El-Sayed, a protester from the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the Nov. 28 parliamentary election. "We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority."