Thousands of protesters clashed with police Monday in Cairo in a spasm of violence that has lasted for three straight days and left dozens of people dead – the worst bloodshed since the popular uprising that toppled Egypt's government nine months ago.
Demonstrations in Tahrir Square, which was the epicenter of protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, erupted Saturday over what protesters say is the military's desire to hold on to power indefinitely. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of the country after Mubarak fell and has been harshly criticized for its oversight of the bumpy transition period.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, reporting from Cairo, said clashes had also broken out near the Interior Ministry. She said security forces were lobbing tear gas and trying to push back the protesters, some of whom hurled broken bits of paving stone and firebombs at the police. At least one apartment building was on fire.
"[Protesters] want the military to respond, to give a date of departure. They want an acknowledgement that what has been happening is a continuation of Mubarak's regime — that in fact the revolution is not over," Nelson said.
"Both sides are digging themselves in ...for a very long battle," she added.
An Egyptian morgue official said the death toll had climbed to at least 24 dead since the violence began. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the numbers. Hundreds of people have been injured, according to doctors in the square.
At one field hospital, "there were so many people who have been injured by rubber bullets, by tear gas canisters, by the tear gas itself," Nelson said. She added that ambulances were ferrying people to hospitals if their wounds were too severe to be treated in the field.
"We must use force against force. We cannot just throw stones at them," said Hassan Mohammed, a protester in his 20s.
"Do you expect us to meet blood with kindness?" asked a bearded teenager climbing a tree with a firebomb in hand. "We will burn it under their feet."
Tens of thousands of Islamists and young activists, mobilized by the Muslim Brotherhood, had massed in Tahrir Square on Friday to protest the military council. But when members of the Islamist group went home, hundreds of demonstrators remained in the square overnight and tried to set up tents, Nelson said. Riot police then moved in to dismantle the camp and burn down the tents.
The fighting escalated Sunday when police launched a heavy assault that failed to clear protesters from the square. As the clashes continued overnight, police hit a makeshift field clinic operated by protesters in the square, forcing them to evacuate bloodied wounded to a nearby mosque.
The Interior Ministry, which runs the country's police forces, accused the demonstrators of trying to escalate tensions ahead of parliamentary elections.
"The interim government is saying that these protesters are trying to derail elections scheduled for Nov. 28," Nelson said. "The military rulers put out a statement saying that while they regret [the killings], they didn't express any apologies. They called on people to work together and said they were not trying to hold on to power."
Many candidates and political parties have suspended their campaigns to show solidarity with the protestors. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has supported the elections, has also condemned police behavior.
The latest eruption of violence reflects the frustration and confusion that has mired Egypt's revolution since Mubarak's fall.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces says it will not hand over control of the government until after presidential elections, which it says could happen in late 2012 or early 2013.
On Monday, a group of 133 diplomats from Egypt's Foreign Ministry took the rare step of issuing a petition demanding the military commit to hold presidential elections and transfer power by 2012.
The protesters are demanding an immediate move to civilian rule. They also fear that Mubarak's party could win a significant number of seats in parliament after next week's election. The military failed to issue a ban on the former ruling party, which has fueled the widely held suspicion that the generals have no intension of standing down.
The military has also proposed a law that would shield the armed forces from any civilian oversight and give the generals veto power over legislation dealing with military affairs.
Activists have been holding occasional protests against the military in Tahrir for months, and some have seen crackdowns by the military or police. But this weekend's violence was the most sustained fighting between the two sides.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reported from Cairo for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.
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