Cairo, Nov 26: Egyptian security forces clashed with protesters camped outside the Cabinet building Saturday, leaving one man dead, as tensions rose two days ahead of parliamentary elections being held despite mass demonstrations against military rule.
The violence occurred as a wave of protests against military rule was given extra impetus by the Egyptian military's decision on Friday to appoint a Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri who served under deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The Obama administration has increased pressure on Egypt's military rulers, who took over from Mubarak, to transfer power to civilian leaders throwing its support behind protesters massed on Cairo's central Tahrir Square for more than a week.
More than 100,000 demonstrators packed into the square on Friday in the biggest rally since the current unrest began. They rejected el-Ganzouri's appointment and presented an alternative to el-Ganzouri. By midday Saturday, the crowd size dwindled to some 5,000 on Saturday afternoon.
Twenty-four protest groups, including two political parties, have announced they are creating their own “national salvation” government to be headed by Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei with deputies from across the political spectrum to which they demanded the military hand over power.
Egyptian state TV said that the head of the ruling military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi met separately with ElBaradei and another presidential hopeful Amr Moussa, who was the former Arab League chief, on Saturday, but it gave no details.
Hundreds also set up camp outside the Cabinet building, spending the night in blankets and tents to prevent the 78-year-old politician from entering to take up his new post. Early Saturday, they clashed with security forces who allegedly tried to disperse them.
An Associated Press cameraman saw three police troop carriers and an armored vehicle firing tear gas as they were being chased from the site by rock-throwing protesters.
The man who was killed was run over by one of the vehicles, but there were conflicting accounts about the circumstances surrounding the death.
The Interior Ministry expressed regret for the death of the protester, identified as Ahmed Serour, and said it was an accident. Police didn't intend to storm the sit-in but were merely heading to the Interior Ministry headquarters, located behind the Cabinet building, when they came under attack by angry protesters throwing firebombs, it said in a statement. The ministry claimed security forces were injured and the driver of one of the vehicles panicked and ran over the protester.
One of the protesters, Mohammed Zaghloul, 21, said he saw six security vehicles heading to their site.
“It became very tense, rock throwing started and the police cars were driving like crazy,” he said. “Police threw one tear gas canister and all of a sudden we saw our people carrying the body of a man who was bleeding really badly.”
Officials say more than 40 people have been killed across the country since Nov. 19, when the unrest began after a small sit-in by protesters injured during the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak was violently broken up by security forces. That led to days of clashes, which ended with a truce on Thursday. It wasn't clear if the melee on Saturday was an isolated incident or part of new violence by security forces trying to clear the way for the new prime minister, and protesters frustrated by what they believe are the military's efforts to perpetuate the old regime.
“El-Ganzouri was pulled out of his grave. He was a dead man,” said a 39-year-old employee Ahmad Anas as chants against the head of the military council rang outside the Cabinet building: “Tantawi and el-Ganzouri are choking me.” A banner hanging over the building gates read: “closed until execution of field marshal.”
El-Ganzouri served as prime minister under Mubarak between 1996 and 1999. His name has been associated with failed mega projects including Toshka, an ambitious expensive scheme to divert Nile water at the southern tip of Egypt to create a second Nile Valley. The project has cost billions and barely gotten off the ground.
The military's appointment of el-Ganzouri, its apology for the death of protesters and a series of partial concessions in the past two days suggest that the generals are struggling to overcome the most serious challenge to their nine-month rule, with fewer options now available to them.
Hala al-Kousy, a 37-year-protester, vowed that protesters will not leave the square until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the formal name of the military's ruling council, gives up power.
“Our main goal is to have SCAR step down. They have patience and so do we,” al-Kousy said. “They are willing to wait and so are we.”
The latest crisis has overshadowed Monday's start of Egypt's first parliamentary elections since Mubarak was replaced by the military council. The vote, which the generals say will be held on schedule despite the unrest, is now seen by many activists and protesters to be serving the military's efforts to project an image of itself as the nation's saviors and true democrats.
The next parliament is expected to be dominated by the country's most organized Muslim Brotherhood group, who decided to boycott the ongoing protests to keep from doing anything that could derail the election. However, the outcome of the vote is likely to be seen as flawed given the growing unrest and the suspension by many candidates of their campaigns in solidarity with the protesters.
Protesters were divided on whether to participate in elections.
“I don't agree with el-Ganzouri because he is too old and we don't want anybody who use to be a symbol of the old regime,” protester Nevine Mustafa, 40, said. She added that she plans to vote even though she believes the elections should be postponed because of the unrest. “I still have a role to play and I need my voice to be heard.”
Manal al-Adawy, however, said she was boycotting the vote.
“As long as the military council appoints people who were Mubarak's slaves, we will continue this sit-in,” the 35-year-old protester. “I am not going to vote in the elections because I don't want to give the military or the elections, legitimacy.”