CAIRO – Egyptian riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets stormed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square Saturday to dismantle a protest tent camp, setting off clashes that killed two protesters, injured hundreds and raised tensions days before the first elections since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
The scenes of protesters fighting with black-clad police forces were reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that forced an end to Mubarak’s rule in February. Hundreds of protesters fought back, hurling stones and setting an armored police vehicle ablaze.
The violence raised fears of new unrest surrounding the parliamentary elections that are due to begin on Nov. 28. Public anger has risen over the slow pace of reforms and apparent attempts by Egypt’s ruling generals to retain power over a future civilian government.
Witnesses said the clashes began when riot police dismantled a small tent camp set up to commemorate the hundreds of protesters killed in the uprising and attacked about 200 peaceful demonstrators who had camped in the square overnight in an attempt to restart a long-term sit-in there.
“Violence breeds violence,” said Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, an engineer who joined in the protest after a call went out on Twitter urging people to come to Tahrir to defend against the police attacks. “We are tired of this and we are not leaving the square.”
Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas and beat protesters with batons, clearing the square at one point and pushing the fighting into surrounding side streets of downtown Cairo.
A 23-year-old protester died from a gunshot, said Health Ministry official Mohammed el-Sherbeni. At least 676 people were injured, he said.
After nightfall, protesters swarmed back into the square in the thousands, setting tires ablaze in the street and filling the area with an acrid, black smoke screen. Police appeared to retreat to surrounding areas, leaving protesters free to retake and barricade themselves inside the square. The air was still thick with stinging tear gas.
Shortly before midnight, police pushed back toward the square, firing more tear gas and drawing a barrage of stones from the protesters holding the site.
The government urged protesters to clear the square.