CAIRO — Egyptian security forces and protesters fought pitched battles Sunday, the second day of deadly clashes that plunged the country into a political crisis that could imperil Egypt’s first post-revolt elections, just a week away.
After an emergency meeting Sunday night, Egypt’s interim military leaders issued a statement expressing “regret over what the events have led to.” But they resisted demonstrators’ demands that they step aside quickly and turn power over to a civilian government, suggesting instead that they would stick to an announced timetable, which could keep them in charge until 2013.
In a separate statement, the military-backed cabinet said the Nov. 28 parliamentary elections would not be delayed, and it accused anti-military demonstrators of provoking the violence in an attempt to derail the vote.
But the unrest appeared to unnerve at least some senior officials. Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi submitted his resignation Sunday, citing the police response to the protests. At least 12 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured over two days, according to the Health Ministry, including at least 80 members of the security forces.
Egypt’s military was applauded nine months ago when the army helped demonstrators push President Hosni Mubarak from office. But the ruling military council, led by Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who served as defense minister under Mubarak, has increasingly become the focus of criticism, as Egyptians worry that its members have taken advantage of the revolution to protect their own interests.
By late Sunday, protests had spread to the coastal cities of Alexandria and Suez and to other parts of the country. But as military leaders stood their ground, they called on Egyptians to “band together” to help with the slow transition of power. The military might be banking on its continued popularity in much of Egypt at a time when many here have soured on the revolutionaries and see the armed forces as the backbone of a country in the midst of political and financial crises.
“We won’t accept any calls to postpone elections, and we affirm that the armed forces and the police are capable of securing the process and leading Egypt through this ditch we’re stuck in,” Gen. Mohsen el-Fangary, a member of the ruling council, said in a phone call to state television Sunday.
As night fell over Cairo, fires raged in the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day revolt that led to Mubarak’s downfall in February. Policemen set ablaze tents and other items belonging to protesters, as rock-throwing demonstrators battled riot officers on side streets.
Several political groups suspended their campaigns, and questions grew over whether the election would be postponed or marred by violence.
“This benefits the military. They’re going to be saying, ‘There is chaos and instability in the streets of Egypt, and that’s why we need to stay in power — to protect stability, to protect security in the nation,’ ” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center. “The last thing we need is more violence one week before the election. We’re going to hear more and more calls for postponement in the coming days. That would be a disaster for Egypt.”
The clashes were preceded by a massive protest Friday dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organized political force, and Salafists, followers of a rigid form of Islam. They took to the streets to demand a quick transition to civilian rule and the retraction of a draft document floated this month that would guide the writing of a new constitution and broaden the military’s powers.
The Islamists, who until recently appeared reluctant to confront the military rulers, mostly left the square by Friday night, but a small group of protesters remained. On Saturday and Sunday, police attempted to dislodge them with tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot, prompting others to take to the streets.
“This is a war for freedom,” said Sara Mohammed, a 19-year-old college student. She said she had slept in the square Saturday and returned after a midterm exam Sunday to drop off food and medicine for the wounded. “We didn’t complete our revolution. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is in power, and they were with Hosni Mubarak for 30 years. We stayed 18 days and we got Mubarak out, and we’ll do it again.”
The wounded were ferried by mopeds to a makeshift clinic in the square as police intermittently fired into the crowds. Protesters accused the Interior Ministry of using live ammunition Sunday, a charge the ministry denied.
Streets were littered with debris, shops around the square were closed, and parts of central Cairo were transformed into battlefields, as protesters predicted a second revolt, this time against the military leadership.
By late Sunday, thousands of people remained defiant in the square. It was reminiscent of the days when Egyptians — liberals and Islamists, young and old — united to battle riot police and protest Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.
Dramatic video of Sunday evening’s crackdown that was broadcast on Arabic satellite television showed police carrying long sticks and beating unarmed protesters. One video showed military police dragging what appeared to be a dead or unconscious demonstrator to the side of the road and leaving him in a pile of trash. In Alexandria, angry demonstrators ripped campaign posters from walls.
“I’m scared that this will mar the election,” said Mahmoud Salem, a prominent blogger and activist running for parliament. He said he put his campaign on hold and is spending all his time in the square. “How can we hold elections with this violence?” he said.
At least two other prominent candidates suspended their campaigns in solidarity with the protesters: the founder of the reformist Kefaya movement, George Ishaq, and the co-founder of the liberal Egypt Freedom Party, Amr Hamzawy. A coalition of revolutionary parties called the Revolution Continues also froze its campaign.
In addition, a news conference scheduled for Monday by the State Information Service, to present final arrangements for voting day, was abruptly postponed, and a new date was not set.
Angry protesters and activists were broadly united Sunday in calling for the immediate resignation of the caretaker government, and most denounced the heavy display of force. But they differed on what should come next.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party continued campaigning Sunday night, saying it supported the protesters but would not accept a delay of the vote. Analysts predicted that any delay would prompt members of the group to take to the streets in protest.
Amr Moussa, the former Arab League chief who is a front-runner in the presidential race, said in an interview that the voting for parliament must go on as scheduled, with a presidential election as soon as possible after that.
“Postponement will trigger a lot of negative reactions,” Moussa said. “This is one of the worst things Egypt has met since January 25, but this is not the end of the road.”
Moussa said the military council was speaking with him and with various political factions and youth groups to seek help in resolving the crisis.
Islam Lotfy attended Sunday’s funeral in Alexandria for his friend Bahaa el-Senussi, who was shot and killed during the clashes. Together they had co-founded the Egyptian Current Party, part of the Revolution Continues coalition, and for now, campaigning is off.
“Everything is on hold,” Lotfy said. “Now is not the time for campaigning, it’s a time to stand together against all this persecution.”