CAIRO -- Protesters and soldiers clashed outside the Egyptian Defense Ministry on Friday in an escalation of anger against the ruling military council that has unnerved this fractious nation ahead of presidential elections to replace toppled leader Hosni Mubarak.
Troops fired tear gas and water cannons to push back demonstrators who reportedly attempted to cut through barbed-wire to reach the ministry. Protesters and soldiers hurled stones at one another as gunshots rang out and the wounded on both sides were ferried from the front lines.
Authorities said 128 people were injured. The unrest temporarily subsided when military police with armored vehicles advanced and protesters scattered into the Abbasiya neighborhood. Political leaders and revolutionary activists called for calm.
"There were no signs of breaking into the ministry," said activist Hatem Nasr Eldin. "None of the protesters provoked the military police, but it was the police that used the situation to execute their ambush. ... We're hearing shots fired everywhere."
The violence around the Defense Ministry erupted as thousands of protesters, many of them members of the Muslim Brotherhood, gathered miles away in Tahrir Square. The aim of both demonstrations was the same -– force the generals from power -– but about 250 protesters among several thousand near the ministry grew combative after weeks of deepening resentment against the military.
The day marked a shifting in the focus of the protest movement. Tahrir has long been the rallying ground of dissent, but in recent days the ministry has become a target for revolt, especially for ultra-conservative Salafis upset that Islamist candidate Hazem Salah abu Ismail was disqualified from the presidential race. Salafis have rarely clashed with security forces over the last year.
The tensions began on Wednesday when unidentified attackers stormed a mostly Salafi protest in a melee that killed 11 people and injured about 200. Demonstrators said the plainclothes assailants were connected to security forces. By Friday, secular activists, liberals and other protesters joined the sit-in.
"We decided to come today after Wednesday's incidents," said Mohamed Kassas, a member of a revolutionary youth coalition. "What we've been calling for is to peacefully show solidarity with the martyrs. But with this happening, it can only be harmful to everyone and no one will benefit from violence here."
Presidential elections are set for May 23, and the military has promised to hand power over to a civilian government before July 1.
-- Jeffrey Fleishman and Amro Hassan
Photo: An injured Egyptian protester is taken away during clashes with authorities near the Defense Ministry in Cairo on Friday. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / EPA