11 killed in Cairo as ‘hired thugs’ attack Islamist rally

Protesters rallying over presidential candidate’s disqualification blame army for bloodshed; Mubarak’s ex-PM: I would visit Israel if it served Egypt’s interest.

Supporter of Salafi presidential candidate Abu Ismail 370 (photo credit: REUTERS /Asmaa Waguih)
Supporter of Salafi presidential candidate Abu Ismail 370
(photo credit: REUTERS /Asmaa Waguih)
Eleven people were killed in Cairo on Wednesday when armed men attacked hundreds of people rallying against their presidential candidate’s disqualification and demanding an end to army rule.
The attacks – which targeted mostly hardline Salafi Islamist protesters – prompted a number of leading presidential candidates to suspend their campaigns in shows of solidarity.
Spokesmen for supporters of the banned Salafi candidate Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail blamed the attacks on hired “thugs” doing the bidding of the country’s military rulers.
They warned the generals not to use it as a pretext to delay their departure.
For its part, the army reaffirmed its stated commitment to hand power to civilians by July 1, and said it might even step down earlier if presidential elections produce a clear winner.
Also on Wednesday, presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who served briefly as prime minister before president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster last year, said that if elected he would be willing to visit the Jewish state as long as the visit served the interests of Egypt.
“I’d be willing to visit Israel on condition that it gave me proof it had good intentions,” he said on the Egyptian station CBC.
A poll conducted this week by the state-run Al- Ahram Center found Shafiq a distant third behind exforeign minister Amr Moussa and the independent Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh in presidential polling.
Kurt Werthmuller, an Egypt expert at Washington’s Hudson Institute, said he doubts Wednesday’s violence will be the last of the campaign season.
“The political disputes that are deeply ingrained in this presidential campaign are far more likely to spill over into Egypt’s most prominent political battleground of ‘the street’ than they are to remain in the discourse of networks and newspapers,” he said.
“There is a massive segment of the Egyptian population that remains largely politically disengaged and has long since grown weary of revolutionary politics.
For many, this violence may further push them to support a presidential candidate who represents stability and familiarity rather than one who more explicitly represents a revolutionary break with the past,” Werthmuller told The Jerusalem Post. “Many Egyptians outside activist circles may no longer want the ‘revolution to continue,’ and they may yet prove that at the ballot box.”
After meeting generals on Wednesday, politicians said the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces might hand over to civilian rule earlier than planned in the unlikely event that elections produce an outright winner.
Few Egyptians expect any one of the 13 candidates to secure more than 50 percent support in the May 23- 24 vote, which is likely to go to a runoff in June.
“Now we are studying how to end the violence.
Today the military council said it would hand power over on May 24 if there is an outright win in the presidential election,” Ahmed al-Fadali, head of the Democratic Peace Party, told reporters, echoing comments by other politicians after the meeting.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest Islamist group that dominates a parliament elected in December, refused to join talks with the generals, saying Wednesday’s violence showed the army was trying to “obstruct the handover of power.”
The Brotherhood’s presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi suspended campaigning for two days, saying they would be mourning the dead. Several political groups said they would call on followers to mass in central Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday.
“I think it will be the practical response to all of what is happening now, be it the blood being spilt or the foot-dragging in the defined date for handing over power,” said senior Brotherhood official Essam el- Erian.
Abol Fotouh, the independent Islamist candidate, suspended campaigning indefinitely in protest, a spokesman said.
On Twitter, Abol Fotouh said he could not now take part in an unprecedented televised debate with Moussa planned for Thursday “when today our youths are drowning in their blood.”
Moussa said: “The number of dead and injured foreshadows a disaster and it is unacceptable for security agencies to stand and watch as clashes continue and blood is shed.”
Medical and judicial sources gave a toll of 11 dead and over 160 wounded.
The Interior Ministry said seven had died.
For hours after the dawn raid, security forces seemed unable or unwilling to put an end to the violence. As fighting raged near the Defense Ministry in the Abbasiya district of central Cairo, Reuters reporters saw men carrying guns, and one with a sword, while protesters threw rocks, bottles and petrol bombs. Only in the afternoon did riot police arrive in large numbers to break up the melee.
Ahmed Shahir, 24, a pharmacology student working at a makeshift clinic set up the scene, said men he described as thugs fired shots at an encampment of protesters, including mostly Abu Ismail supporters but also members of prodemocracy youth movements.
Local residents joined in the attack on the protesters.
Among the protesters were hardcore soccer fans and diehard revolutionaries skilled in street combat who dashed back and forth across debris-scattered streets, hurling rocks.
Wounded men were hauled away and others filled bottles with gasoline to throw at their opponents.
“Where is the army?” cried a bystander. “Why are they not stopping these people?”
Reuters contributed to this report.