Calm returned to Cairo yesterday after Egypt’s military rulers imposed an overnight curfew around the defense ministry following fierce clashes between troops and protesters that killed two people.
The clashes erupted just three weeks ahead of Egypt’s first presidential election since a popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak last year.
After the curfew ended yesterday at 5am local time, the protests around the ministry had subsided, while soldiers and armored personnel carriers blocked off a road leading to the ministry.
Officials at Al-Zahra University hospital said on Friday they received two people who died in the skirmishes outside the ministry. A frontline medic group said they died of gunshot wounds.
The health ministry reported only one death and said he was a conscript soldier.
At least 296 people were injured in the clashes and 139 taken to hospital, the health ministry said in a statement.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had imposed the curfew starting from 9pm local time, and pledged in a statement to “decisively confront” any attempts to break it.
The army arrested 170 people outside the defense ministry, military prosecution sources said, adding that they would order the detention of people accused of inciting the violence, including some “big names.”
Earlier on Friday, military police charged the protesters, chasing them down side streets near the ministry on foot and in military vehicles, firing birdshot and assault rifles into the air amid chaotic scenes.
The Abbassiya neighborhood witnessed deadly clashes just two days earlier, which the health ministry said left at least nine people dead, though field medics say it was more.
A blanket of thick smoke engulfed Abbassiya square, where several thousand secular and Islamist protesters had gathered, some marching there from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, to denounce the ruling military council.
The clashes began when some protesters threw rocks at the military police, prompting troops to respond with water cannon and later tear gas.
The police, their shields in one hand, hurled rocks back at the protesters, who used metal sheets from construction sites to protect themselves.
Bleeding protesters were ferried away by motorbike and ambulances rushed to the scene, an AFP reporter said. State television showed several soldiers wounded.
A Belgian photographer with the English-language Egypt Independent was briefly arrested, a colleague, Nevine El Shabrawi, told foreign media.
The unrest comes ahead of the landmark presidential polls amid fears of many Egyptians that the military rulers will renege on a pledge to hand over power to civilian rule and that the vote will be rigged.
“We are here to end SCAF rule. We don’t trust them. SCAF is following Mubarak’s example, and we want to protect the revolution,” Coalition of Revolution Youth member Mohammed Badawi said.
On Wednesday, unknown attackers stormed a sit-in near the defense ministry by supporters of Salafist politician Hazem Abu Ismail, after he was disqualified from the presidential race.
The powerful Muslim Brotherhood has fielded the head of its political arm Mohammed Mursi whose main Islamist rival is Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood member.
On Thursday, the SCAF vowed that the presidential election will be fair and moved to assure the public it will hand over power on schedule but warned against protests outside the defense ministry.