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Analysis & Opinion
Chaos descends on Occupy Oakland
Protesters stand in line to prevent their compatriots from throwing stones at riot police during clashes near the Interior Ministry in Cairo February 4, 2012.
Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih
By Edmund Blair and Yasmine Saleh
Sun Feb 5, 2012 11:17am EST
CAIRO (Reuters) - Protesters demanding a swift presidential election and an early handover of power by the army hurled rocks at police guarding the Egyptian Interior Ministry on Sunday and were forced back with volleys of teargas.
It was the fourth day of clashes outside the ministry, in which seven people have died. Protesters accuse the ministry of failing to prevent the deaths last week of 74 people after a soccer match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said. Five more have died in Suez.
Some protesters believe that remnants of the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak were behind violence that caused a stampede at the soccer match last Wednesday, and see it as part of a plot to create chaos to reassert their influence.
Political figures and a civilian advisory body to the military have suggested bringing forward a presidential vote to April or May, from the June date foreseen in the transition timetable of the army, which took power after Mubarak quit.
Police and protesters, some waving flags of Al Ahli soccer team which played in Wednesday's match, hurled rocks at each other and police fired round after round of teargas to push the lines of mostly young protesters back from the ministry.
The authorities erected fresh barriers of big concrete blocks barring access through streets leading to the ministry. Some earlier barriers had been hauled down.
"The demand is that the army step down politically and announce the start of nominations for the presidential election immediately," said Waleed Saleh, 30, a lawyer and activist with a mask at the ready, speaking near the ministry.
The military council, which took charge when Mubarak was toppled by a popular uprising on February 11 last year, has promised to hand power to civilians by the end of June after an election.
But calls for a swifter handover have mounted, and the Muslim Brotherhood which has the biggest bloc in a newly elected parliament, added its voice on Saturday to calls for a faster transition.
An army-appointed civilian council set up to advise the military is proposing accepting nominations for the presidency from February 23, nearly two months sooner than the April 15 date previously announced. This could lead to a vote in April or May.
DEMAND FOR RETRIBUTION
"If the army adopts that proposal, it will reduce the level of tension," said Saleh, though he voiced a view popular among activists that the army might still try to influence policy from behind the scenes even with a president in place.
Activists have kept a permanent presence in Tahrir Square since January 25, the anniversary of the eruption of protests against Mubarak.
Other protesters also called for the army to quit now and demanded retribution after the soccer deaths and for those killed in protests.
There has been intense speculation about the cause of the soccer stadium disaster, Egypt's worst. The interior minister has blamed provocations by rival fans although he said there were security shortcomings. Protesters blame the police for allowing or even prodding the violence.
"Those people over there are the reason for the deaths in Port Said," said 25-year-old Mahmoud Gaber, pointing to the police lines moments before a police riot car advanced and fired teargas on youths in the street, briefly pushing them back.
Many are angry that there has not been a deep clear-out in the police force and that officers use the same heavy-handed tactics against protests as in Mubarak's era.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim defended the actions of police in dealing with protests, saying officers had shown "unusual self-restraint." He also urged protesters to stay in Tahrir Square and identify those stirring up trouble.
Protesters and police have often negotiated brief truces to cool the situation. But at least on two occasions Reuters journalists saw police re-igniting skirmishes by firing teargas or throwing stones at lines of protesters.
Many ordinary Egyptians are increasingly worried by the continued turmoil, and some see the army as the only institution able to guard the nation against a descent into complete chaos.
Near one of the streets where the clashes were occurring, one man, Waleed al-Hakim, criticized the demonstration. "Those are not protesters, those are thugs," he said.
But others snapped back at him including one youth with a scarf around his face who said: "We are peaceful protesters and they are firing teargas at us. Why? What did we do to them?"
Newly elected independent parliamentarian Yasser Qadri, a member of the assembly's national security committee, said his committee was proposing drawing lines near state buildings.
"Those who cross the red line would be dealt with according to the law that gives security the right to protect state buildings from attacks," he said.
But that could prove a provocation to protesters who have ignored big concrete barriers.
Among the hundreds injured in the four days of clashes was Ahmed Maher, a leader of the April 6 movement which helped galvanize the protests against Mubarak. He was in hospital on Sunday with a head injury but was stable, the group said.
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Sherine El Madany and Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Peter Graff)
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