Killing of Protesters Risks Escalation of Egypt's Political Crisis

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Khaled Elfiqi / EPA

Egyptian antimilitary protesters carry an injured comrade during clashes with attackers at Cairo's Abbasiya Square on May 2, 2012

Night fell over Cairo on Wednesday amid another tense standoff, after a day on which at least 11 protesters were killed in attacks by unidentified thugs, eventually restrained by police, but only after about six hours of fighting. Nightfall found the protesters, who had gathered to challenge the ruling military junta over the exclusion of key Islamist candidates from the presidential election later this month, massed against a huge concertina-wire fence blocking the road leading up to Egypt's Defense Ministry. "The Egyptian army is ours. The military council is not ours," hundreds of them chanted, as soldiers in riot gear stared back from the other side of the wire. Suddenly, someone hurled a bottle and both sides became tense, clutching their weapons and waiting breathlessly for the other shoe to drop.

What began several days ago as a small protest by the Salafi supporters of the recently disqualified Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail has escalated into a broader demonstration against military rule. By Wednesday evening, Egypt's first presidential debate — scheduled for Thursday — had been postponed; at least two candidates had suspended their campaigns; and Abu Ismail's supporters had been joined by members of the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, liberal youth and student activists, and even the hardcore soccer fans who had been at the center of most of the major street battles during the Egyptian rebellion. An initial crowd of no more than a hundred has grown into several thousands, equipped with field clinics, tents and improvised checkpoints — it's a miniature Tahrir Square.

Critics of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a shadowy group of regime-appointed generals who took over after an uprising forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak last year, say the junta has proved notoriously inept at managing the country's transition. And as is often the case in the cycle of protest and violence that has periodically wracked post-Mubarak Egypt, the latest unrest follows a familiar pattern: early Wednesday morning, the country's security forces stood by as anonymous, plainclothes thugs attacked protesters with shotgun fire and batons. The injuries, along with allegations that the military was complicit in the violence, quickly drew more protesters. And by Wednesday afternoon, when riot police finally separated the groups, at least 11 people had been killed, anger was rising, and the confrontation was threatening to escalate. "On the first day, the numbers were very small, but since the thuggery started, the numbers have increased," says Ahmed Korady, a medical student and a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. "A week ago there were just two tents here, and now look around," he adds, nodding to a string of more than a dozen.

Egypt is slated to hold its first democratic presidential election in the country's history on May 23. But the process of vetting candidates has been questionable. Last month, two of the top contenders — both Islamists — were booted from the race over fine-print disqualifications that their supporters say were politically motivated. The Islamist-dominated parliament has called for the military-appointed government to be dismissed. And liberal youth activists have said they'd be skeptical of the outcome of any election held under the ruling generals.

In a move that seemed aimed at placating the protesters, the SCAF said on Wednesday that if the election yielded a clear winner by May 24 — in the unlikely event that no runoff were required — the military would hand power over to a civilian government earlier than expected. But to the demonstrators, the statement was largely meaningless: the generals had already promised to transition to civilian rule once a civilian government has been seated in July. And those words may not be enough to slow the pace of confrontation touched off by the latest killings. "The military council said today on TV that they'll move up the schedule [of the transition of power] to the 24th. But people are still coming because of the people who died yesterday," says one protester, Mohamed Suleiman, an electrician. "Now all the political powers are here." Demonstrators have called for a nationwide protest on Friday.

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani / Cairo