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Rioting Egyptians at Defense Ministry say street protests are more effective than elections

Two weeks before presidential elections here, amid continuing clashes between Egyptian civilians and security forces, protesters are saying that they are back in the streets because they do not trust elections to bring about the kind of revolutionary change they had hoped for.

The Egyptian military, which has ruled this country by decree for 15 months, “only responds to protests,” Emad Behnessy, 38, a nutritionist, said Friday as protesters and security forces clashed outside the Ministry of Defense.

With each protest, tensions between the protesters and security forces grow. As many as 11 protesters were killed earlier this week, spurring protests Friday in which, according to the Health Ministry, a soldier died and 296 others were injured as security forces and protesters hurled rocks and chunks of concrete at one another. On Friday night, the military announced a curfew around its ministry until Saturday morning, and the military stationed armored vehicles on the roads leading to the ministry.

Gen. Mokhtar el Malla, a member of the military’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, defended the military’s response. “We guarantee the right of peaceful protest, but in case of any attacks on military facilities or the Ministry of Defense, our reaction will be an act of self-defense,” he said.

The melee began as thousands of people chanting phrases such as “Down, down, military rule” moved toward the ministry. Then security forces grabbed a protester and began beating him before hauling him away. The protesters ran and began throwing rocks they’d already gathered. The police threw the rocks back, then sprayed the crowd with tear gas and water. The crowds then advanced again, and the cycle repeated itself for hours. The projectiles grew bigger as protesters began to break up the sidewalk for new ammunition.

“This is the same tactic they have been using toward us since the beginning,” shouted Abdel el Saghees, a 23-year-old graphic designer, gesturing to the scores of security forces lined up in front of him. “They are trying to incite violence,” he said, to force the government to postpone elections.

Thousands more gathered at nearby Tahrir Square, the seat of last year’s protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and put the military in charge of Egypt. Some in the crowd asked that the military hand over control immediately to a presidential council, the Parliament or the country’s constitutional court, but few could name someone they would trust to lead the state through its fragile democratic transition. Still others said they wanted to reaffirm their demand that elections lead to a complete handover of power.

Government state radio made no mention of the protests or the violence, insisting that the security forces were acting with restraint. There was also no mention of arrests, though demonstrators and some journalists were detained.

Throughout its modern history, Egypt had been governed by elected officials who’d had long military careers – and a powerful military that governed in the background. Up until last year’s revolution, the military had been considered the country’s most popular institution, the protector of the Egyptian people.

But the military’s aura has faded in the ensuing months, and now many protesters fear that an elected civilian president won’t be able to take control of the military’s budget or business interests and won’t be able to force the generals to become subservient to an elected leadership.

Many now believe the toppling of Mubarak “did not start as a military coup but it ended that way,” in the words of Youssef Abdel Ati, 28, a corporate banker who said he had attended scores of protests. The military “will not give up power,” he said.

The protests began over the election commission’s decision to disqualify popular Islamist presidential candidate Salah Abu Ismail but ballooned after the killing of 11 demonstrators on Wednesday in clashes with “thugs” or unknown civilians who began attacking the protesters. After that violence, the military placed four tanks outside the ministry, leading to charges that they were protecting the attackers, not the protesters.

McClatchy special correspondents Amina Ismail and Mohannad Sabry contributed to this report.

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