Several hundred Egyptian protesters hurling rocks and battling through tear gas clashed with security forces for a second day Wednesday outside the Interior Ministry as the demonstrators pressed for swifter trials for officials accused of brutality during the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
It was the worst violence in downtown Cairo in months and revealed the deep mistrust and anger many Egyptians harbor for the state and its police. The number of protesters was relatively small, but the rage flowing through the streets startled riot police who fought off stones and a few Molotov cocktails.
No high-profile activists or opposition figures immediately joined the crowd, which consisted mostly of young men roaming across scattered rocks and broken glass between Tahrir Square and the Interior Ministry a few blocks away. Some of them called for Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council ruling the country, to step down.
About 1,000 people were injured, most with minor cuts and scrapes, according to the Health Ministry.
“We will stay outside the ministry until we avenge to the blood of the revolution’s martyrs,” said Mahmoud Gharieb, a protester. “We want to set this ministry ablaze after breaking into it.”
The Interior Ministry was for decades the symbol of state repression. It remains reviled by the families of more than 800 demonstrators killed by police and security forces during the 18-day revolt that toppled Mubarak in February. They complain that cases against officials have moved too slowly, especially regarding Interior Minister Habib Adli, who faces the death penalty and has had his trial adjourned twice.
Police blamed the two days of rioting on youths who were turned away from a theater Tuesday before a small ceremony to honor those who died in the revolution. Authorities said young men then quickly gathered in Tahrir Square. Several thousand protesters, including families of martyrs, were attacked overnight by hundreds of riot police. The force fired heavy volleys of tear gas.
Large groups of demonstrators returned later Wednesday afternoon and battled police, who set up barricades outside the Interior Ministry. Security forces closed roads and pushed the protesters back toward the square. By early evening, two tents had been set up in Tahrir but the number of protesters diminished as the city prepared for a big soccer match.
A posting on the military council’s Facebook page said the protesters “had no justification other than to shake Egypt’s safety and security in an organized plan that exploits the blood of the revolution’s martyrs and to sow division between the people and the security apparatus.”
But Ashraf Ebeid, a protester, gave this account: “We were peacefully demonstrating in Tahrir last night when police and their thugs came to attack us.… They kept firing tear gas, birdshot and rubber bullets from about 10 p.m. Tuesday till 3 or 4 a.m. Wednesday.”
He added: “We never gave them the chance to evacuate the square. Then we gathered in the early morning and decided to come to the ministry to attack them [police] and keep them away from the square.”
The scenes from the square — bandaged men and damaged shops — were reminiscent of the most violent days of the revolution. They came as the military council has been struggling to instill a sense of normality in a nation facing economic turmoil, upcoming parliamentary elections and fears among activists that the revolution may be hijacked by Islamists and remnants of the former regime.
Much of the disillusionment and anger have been vented on the police. Many officers have not returned to work since the revolution, fearing reprisals from Egyptians they once intimidated. Mobs have attacked and beaten a number of patrolmen and officers. But activists blame the police and military for continued human rights violations.
One street cop has been sentenced to death for shooting and killing 23 protesters during the revolution. But families of victims say the government is protecting top officials from similar fates, including Mubarak whose trial is expected to begin in August.