Unknown attackers have killed at least 20 Egyptian protesters and wounded more than 160 on a fourth day of clashes in Cairo. Troops have been deployed to the area to end the violence.
Hospital officials say that the death toll has risen to 20. Earlier reports suggested that nine people had died of gunshot wounds to the head, while two people were stabbed to death. So far it is not clear if any of the attackers were among the dead or if the victims were all protesters.
The Egyptian army has reportedly deployed troops to the area to end the clashes. In the face of the insurgency, the Military Council said it may transfer power on May 24 if the president is elected in the first round.
On Wednesday the attackers targeted several hundred protesters camped outside the Defense Ministry on Abbaseyah Square to demand an end of military rule. They are protesting against Egypt’s ruling military body the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and its disqualification of Islamist Salafi leader Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail from May's presidential race. Witnesses say the assailants came at the protesters at dawn with cement-based bombs, stones, Molotov cocktails, birdshot and teargas canisters.
Twitter users call the clashes a massacre: “Let the world know that a massacre happened last night in #Abassiya #Egypt #MOD,” writes @Amir_Elshenawy.
“Thugs have been attacking sit-in for 4 days in a row, using molotovs, shotguns, swords, bombs and live ammo. Now teargas being used,” @JonathanRashad says.
Following the clashes the leading Egyptian presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh has suspended campaign events over the treatment of protesters.
Some tweets suggested the protesters were also armed. “Okay this needs to be said. Some of us protesters have guns. Some are on the phone asking for guns,” @Psypherize admits.
Since Saturday, hundreds have protested the banning of Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail from next month's presidential race. The Islamist Salafi leader was disqualified because his mother held dual Egyptian-US citizenship, which violates the eligibility rules. He had been seen as one of the front-runners. His supporters have seen several similar attacks in the last four days, although army troops and police deployed in the area reportedly did nothing to intervene.
This makes activists believe the assailants operate with the blessing of the military or police, and that they may even be on their payroll.
“Plain clothed thugs shooting at protesters with live bullets and tear gas, for sure they are working for SCAF,” @Gsquare86 wrote when the attack began several hours ago.
“How can 'thugs' use teargas unless they are supplied by Interior Ministry. They are either CSF [Central Security Forces] conscripts or police-backed civilians,” @JonathanRashad says.
Pro-military state media say the assailants were local residents angered by the disruption caused by the protests.
The violence has ratcheted up tensions in Egypt as the crucial presidential election is scheduled in just three weeks. The military generals dubbed as “Mubarak’s Junta” by pro-democracy activists took power after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak 14 months ago. Since then Egypt has seen a year of turmoil with nationwide protests and hundreds killed in the violence.
The SCAF headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi earlier promised to hand over power to a civilian administration by July 1. However recent anti-military protests suggest many Egyptians do not believe Mubarak’s allies will give up their position.
Political activist Ahmed Naguib believes that those "unidentified people" who attacked the protesters are the remnants of Mubarak’s military apparatus, which are being used by the ruling Military Council to bring chaos to the streets and disrupt the upcoming presidential elections.
RT: The attackers outside the Defence Ministry in Cairo have not been identified, but who could they be?
Ahmed Naguib: They have definitely been identified. They’ve definitely been there since day one of the revolution. This is what the Military Council kept calling or referring to as “the third party”. This third party has been part of the militias, of the National Democratic Party and the state security apparatus for the past 20 years. All of them have very intense criminal records and they have been used instead of the formal militias or the army itself. So they are doing the dirty work for the Military Council.
RT: With that supposition from you and with this current violence while there is little over three weeks to go until the election, is that a sign that there is an element within Cairo that does not really want to see people going to the polls? Are you suggesting that it is a military government?
AN: Absolutely. They’ve already tried that in November and December during the parliamentary election but it failed. They were trying to drag the Muslim Brotherhood into Tahrir Square so that they can declare martial law and say that the Muslim Brotherhood is a violent group, but they failed to do that. Now they are trying to do the same thing and every single time it turns against them. They’ve obviously not learned their lessons. They are following Mubarak’s steps exactly and that is why they’ve managed to unify everyone again – all the liberals, and the Brotherhood, and the Salafis – everyone is in the same trench right now against the Military Council.
RT: Nevertheless, will we see that election go ahead, and if so will it be free and fair?
AN: Let me tell you something. There is already a shroud of uncertainty with the Article 28 that was passed through the referendum or the declaration that came as a result of the referendum on March 19, 2011, that says that no one can revoke the results announced by the head or the chief of the electoral committee. Which means even if you verbally announce someone else than the person who truly won, nobody can revoke those results. There is a clear intention to rig those elections and this is why today we heard Sami Anan, the second-in-command in the Military Council, saying that they are ready to hand over power even on May 24 if the presidential candidate wins from the first round. This only means that they are ready with that candidate in mind.