Egypt’s government submitted its resignation to the country’s ruling military council on Monday, as the death toll in clashes between protesters and police rose to 24 since their onset on Friday.
Later Monday, Al Jazeera reported that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces accepted the government’s offer to resign.
The move followed the resignation of Egypt’s Culture Minister Emad Abu Ghazi, who told the Al Ahram website he “will not retract his resignation” and criticized the cabinet’s response to three days of clashes between protesters and security forces.
Throughout the day, young activists demanding the military hand over power to a civilian government skirmished with black-clad police, hurling stones and firebombs and throwing back the tear gas canisters being fired by police into the square, which was the epicenter of the protest movement that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
The night before saw an escalation of the fighting as police launched a heavy assault that tried and failed to clear protesters from the square. In a show of the ferocity of the assault, the death toll leaped from Sunday evening until Monday morning. A constant stream of injured protesters — bloodied from rubber bullets or overcome by gas — were brought into makeshift clinics set out on sidewalks around the square where volunteer doctors scrambled from patient to patient.
The eruption of violence, which began Saturday, reflects the frustration and confusion that has mired Egypt’s revolution since Mubarak fell and the military stepped in to take power.
It comes only a week before Egypt is to begin the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, which many have hoped would be a significant landmark in a transition to democracy.
U.S. officials are trying to carefully navigate the unfolding crisis in Egypt, stressing a message of non-violence “to all parties” ahead of the elections. “I’m not going to try to get ourselves into the middle of the events, except to say that no use of violence by any side was justified in this case,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday.
“The United States is deeply concerned by the violence in Egypt over the past few days. We deplore the loss of life and our condolences go out to the families of the victims of this violence,” Nuland said.
“In the coming days it will be very important for all parties to focus on holding free, fair and peaceful elections as scheduled on November 28th, and we urge all involved to act with restrain in order to allow free and fair elections to proceed,” Nuland added. “We’ve also been clear that we think that the emergency law should be dropped.”
The upcoming vote has been overshadowed by mounting anger at the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which will continue to hold power even after the vote. Activists accuse the generals of acting increasingly in the same autocratic way as Mubarak’s regime and fear that they will dominate the coming government, just as they have the current interim one they appointed months ago.
The military says it will hand over power only after presidential elections, which it has vaguely said will be held in late 2012 or early 2013. The protesters are demanding an immediate move to civilian rule.
“What does it mean, transfer power in 2013? It means simply that he wants to hold on to his seat,” said a young protester, Mohammed Sayyed, referring to the head of the Supreme Council, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.
Sayyed held two rocks, ready to throw, as he took cover from tear gas in a side street off Tahrir. His head was bandaged from what he said was a rubber bullet that hit him earlier Monday.
“I will keep coming back until they kill me,” he said. “The people are frustrated. Nothing changed for the better.”
An Egyptian morgue official said the toll had climbed to 24 dead since the violence began Saturday — a jump from the toll of five dead around nightfall Sunday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the numbers. Hundreds have been injured, according to doctors in the square.
At the makeshift field clinics around Tahrir Square, medical volunteers rushed between injured protesters staggering in, or being carried in by comrades. Most of the clinics were simply a partitioned-off sections of sidewalk.
Mohammed Mustafa, a doctor at the main clinic set up inside a nearby mosque, said his site alone was treating an average of 80 cases an hour and that many of the wounded did not want to be taken to hospital because they feared arrest. He and other doctors said most of the injured had breathing and eye problems and wounds to the face from rubber bullets. A number of protesters have lost eyes from rubber bullet hits since Saturday.
During the overnight assault, police hit one of the field clinics with heavy barrages of tear gas, forcing the staff to flee, struggling to carry out the wounded. Some were moved to a nearby sidewalk outside a Hardees fast food restaurant. A video posted on social networking sites showed a soldier dragging the motionless body of a protester along the street and leaving him in a garbage-strewn section of Tahrir.
Protesters also marched Monday other cities, including thousands of students in the coastal city of Alexandria. calling for those responsible for the violence in Cairo to be punished.
The protesters’ suspicions about the military were fed by a proposal issued by the military-appointed Cabinet last week that would shield the armed forces from any civilian oversight and give the generals veto power over legislation dealing with military affairs. It would also give them considerable power over the body that is to be created after the election to draft a new constitution.
At the same time, there are deep concerns the election will bring little democratic change. Many worry that stalwarts of Mubarak’s ruling party could win a significant number of seats in the next parliament because the military did not ban them from running for public office as requested by activists.
Many also believe that whoever wins the election, the military will continue to wield its domination over the next government. The current civilian government has been little more than a facade for the military, activists say. It has done little to bring about economic and political reform and has stood unable — or unwilling — to act as woes have mounted in Egypt.