After five days, no break in Egypt's turmoil

 

McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO — With a milestone election just five days away, Egypt showed no sign Wednesday of recovering from a spasm of violence that's wrecked the campaign period and spiraled into a rebellion that now threatens the ruling military council's grip on the nation.

The bloodshed continued for a fifth consecutive day despite international appeals for calm and limited concessions put forth by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to address demands that it transfer power to a civilian transitional authority immediately.

The council ceded no new ground, however, and nobody could say for sure how to rescue a country whose uprising against authoritarianism had captured the world's imagination and inspired other Arab revolts.

"We're crying out for freedom," said Dr. Noha Mansour, a 50-year-old pediatrician who joined the protest in Cairo. "They're treating the Egyptian people like cows, like we don't understand anything. So we must send a message: This is our revolution and it's not finished yet."

The streets surrounding Cairo's Tahrir Square, sacred ground for the revolutionaries who stood united there against former President Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago, was a battlefield. Thousands of protesters camped in the square Wednesday, forming a human cordon to protect a makeshift field hospital where the injured arrived around the clock from clashes in adjacent side streets.

Earlier in the day, Muslim clerics and other community figures brokered a brief ceasefire that collapsed at sundown, when fierce fighting resumed in the street leading from the square to the Interior Ministry.

The White House called for an end to the "deplorable" violence in Egypt and joined the United Nations in chiding the military rulers for using excessive force to put down a rebellion that protesters vow will continue until the council steps aside.

"It's important for the Egyptian people to have a sense that that process is going forward, that that process is responsive to their aspirations for democracy, and that they can see a path towards a different future, and one in which they are governed by their elected leaders," State Department spokesman Ben Rhodes told reporters.

The unrest began Saturday when riot police forcibly removed protesters who'd staged a peaceful sit-in against prolonged military rule. The incident outraged other revolutionaries, who came in droves to defend the protesters in clashes with security forces that have run virtually nonstop since.

Nothing short of the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who's replaced Mubarak as Enemy No. 1 to the protesters, would be enough to clear the square now, protesters said. But when pressed as to whom specifically should steer Egypt's transition should the military step aside, few could answer.

The military council seemed wedded to Tantawi's newly announced plan for accelerated presidential elections and a full handover of power by mid-2012, even as the death toll rose and pressure mounted from all quarters for a resolution.

Senior members of the council said on state television that elections — the first since Mubarak's ouster — would go on as scheduled, with one general predicting 80 percent turnout when staggered parliamentary polls open Monday.

"It's not appropriate to compare us to the former regime," Gen. Mahmoud Hegazi of the council told state TV, adding that the revolutionaries included the armed forces.

"There's a huge lack of trust as a result of long years and we haven't gotten rid of this," he continued. "People have every right not to trust us after a long period of promises that were never fulfilled."

However, Hegazi warned, there was no alternative to the military in these anarchic times, and he suggested that a national referendum on the question of a handover timetable proffered by Tantawi was off the table.

"If we decided to hold a referendum on the supreme council we will be giving up our duty," Hegazi said. "We are managing a transitional period and we understand that responsibility. We are aware of the demands of the street and we intend to speed up the transfer of power."

The council also issued a statement insisting soldiers hadn't fired tear gas or other weapons at demonstrators — an apparent attempt to distinguish army troops from police units belonging the reviled Interior Ministry. Both forces ultimately answer to the council as Egypt's highest authority.

The Egyptian armed forces, the statement said, "did not and will not use any kind of weapon, regardless of its type, against the children of this precious nation." The statement went on to lecture "revolutionary youth" against the dangers of rumors.

In both Cairo and the port city of Alexandria, the nation's second-largest city, Egyptian soldiers moved in from rear positions to act as a buffer between the demonstrators and riot police, perhaps an attempt by the military to restore its now-tarnished image as the guardian of the revolution that toppled Mubarak in February.

The soldiers typically aren't targeted, as most protesters draw a distinction between the conscripts and their commanders, but the calm derived from their presence was short-lived. Clashes resumed in both cities after nightfall as Egyptians across the country watched live TV footage showing familiar landmarks in flames or engulfed in tear gas.

The Health Ministry's death toll from the clashes has risen to 35, including 31 in Cairo, two in Alexandria, one in Ismailia and one in Marsa Matruh. More than 2,000 people have been wounded.

At least five people were killed in unrest across Egypt on Wednesday alone, including a young female field doctor, identified as Rania Fouad, who was overcome by tear gas in Cairo and slipped into a coma before she died, according to local news reports. Some 700 were injured in the same period.

Egyptian health officials also said there was no evidence that security forces were using poisonous gas against the demonstrators, after an investigation prompted by complaints that the fumes were more potent than usual tear gas and had caused unusual symptoms such as convulsions.

For days now, a cloud of tear gas has lingered over Tahrir, with fresh canisters fired regularly by Interior Ministry forces. Protesters have tried wearing surgical masks, gas masks and swimming goggles to combat the effects, but to little avail. One entrepreneur began selling more sophisticated $25 masks, with free delivery to the square.

Throughout the square, it's common to see protesters vomiting, stumbling and fainting from the thick gas. An Egyptian TV correspondent reportedly collapsed while giving a live update Wednesday.

"Even if I weren't a revolutionary," said medical student and field doctor Bashir Hamdi, "after all I've seen this week, I would've turned into one."

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed from Cairo.)

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