CAIRO — Egypt’s military rulers struggled Sunday to contain an explosion of protests demanding their ouster, as a growing crowd of demonstrators pushed security forces out of Tahrir Square for a second night in a row and new clashes broke out across the country.
Egyptian troops, heralded as saviors when their generals ushered out President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, led a new push to clear the square. And the battles took a more lethal toll: the Health Ministry said that at least six were killed, and doctors set up in the square said that the number could be twice that.
But the violence only seemed to reinforce the revolutionary urgency that had returned to the square, and when the army moved to push out the thousands of protesters, more than twice as many quickly flooded back.
“This is February 12!” said Abeer Mustafa, a 42-year-old wedding planner. “We have finally succeeded in reclaiming our revolution.”
The crackdown, including the reported use of live ammunition by troops, elicited condemnation across the political spectrum, joined by voices who had previously taken a more restrained tone toward the military council, from the liberal former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Almost all the civilian parties called for an accelerated end to military rule before the drafting of a constitution — either an immediate handover to some civilian unity government, a turnover to the lower house of Parliament when it is seated in April, or after a presidential election, to be scheduled as soon as possible.
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But while unity reappeared in the square, where Coptic Christians once again stood guard as their Muslim compatriots bowed to pray, the political class remained deeply polarized over what sort of civilian government might succeed the military. Liberals and Islamists continued to battle each other in back-room arguments over the question of what rules the military might set for the selection of a constitutional convention, even as the street protesters demanded that the military give up such authority.
In its first official response to the crisis, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces repeated its commitment to its “road map” of the transition, including next week’s elections, but it did nothing to move up or clarify its exit date, now set for some time after drafting of a constitution and electing of a president in perhaps 2013 or beyond. The council expressed “sorrow” over the situation. It said it had ordered an investigation and it asked the political parties to “contain the situation.”
The protests were an eruption of anger that started with a peaceful march by tens of thousands of Islamists on Friday. When security forces tried to clear a small tent city that remained in the square on Saturday, a far more diverse cross section of young people and professionals turned out in support, battling the police in a war of rocks and tear gas. By Sunday, the clashes had spread to at least seven other cities, including the major population centers of Alexandria and Suez.
A makeshift field clinic that protesters had set up in a mosque near Tahrir Square treated a steady stream of hundreds of bloody patients on Sunday, registering at least one death, and doctors said they treated some wounded by live ammunition instead of the rubber bullets and birdshot that the security forces primarily used. After dark, a dead body was paraded on a stretcher through the square as battles continued around the periphery. More than 1,000 people were reported seriously injured over the past two days.
“This is the breaking point we were all waiting for,” said Tarek Salama, a surgeon working in the field hospital. “Getting rid of Mubarak was just the warm-up. This is the real showdown.”
With parliamentary elections set to begin in just a week, television commentators were raising alarms even before the clashes erupted, that the military and security forces were not equipped to secure the polls, and many protestors said they feared that the military encouraged the strife as a pretext for postponing the election of a more legitimate body.
But a delay would be sure to set off an even bigger insurrection. The Muslim Brotherhood warned in a statement on Sunday that “we, along with our well-informed people, will not allow the cancellation or delay in the elections no matter what the price is.”