Fears that tear gas and rubber bullets, widely used in crackdown against protesters, could be cause of deaths in Egypt.
Clashes between Egyptian security forces and protesters demanding an end to military rule have extended into a fifth day in the capital, Cairo, amid a deepening distrust of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
On Wednesday, thousands of demonstrators filled central Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focal point of the protest movement, a day after the crowd rejected an offer by the military to speed up the transition to civilian rule.
Chanting against Field Marshal Muhammed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the SCAF, protesters continued their sit-in despite the presence of thick clouds of tear gas wafting through the air.
“The entire movement over the past few months has been about putting the military in check. Now, the general sentiment is we don’t trust authority, or at least, we don’t trust this authority.”
– Amr Gharbeia, Egyptian activist
“The people want the fall of the field marshal,” they called in thunderous unison, waving large Egyptian flags and signs denouncing the military.
The chants came a day after Tantawi announced on state media that the military had no interest in staying in power and that parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on November 28 would go ahead.
Tantawi also pledged that a presidential election to replace the military council would take place before July 2012, the first time the military has set a deadline for the vote.
The presidential election would mark the last step in a transition of power following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in February after an 18-day uprising.
“We ask for fair elections. We do not care who runs for elections and who is elected president and yet we are accused of being biased,” Tantawi said on in his address.
Despite Tantawi’s address, heavy clashes continued to erupt on a street leading from Tahrir to the capital’s heavily guarded Interior Ministry.
One building burned steadily on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and at least three armoured personnel carriers were seen heading toward Tahrir on Wednesday afternoon. The MENA news agency reported that the military had ordered three armoured vehicles to Mohamed Mahmoud Street to halt violence between protesters and security forces.
Meanwhile, riot police and military forces used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse demonstrators, armed with rocks and petrol bombs, who continue to push toward the ministry.
On Wednesday afternoon, reports from the scene suggested that a truce had been reached between riot police from the Central Security Forces and protesters. Ismail Mohamady, a religious scholar from al-Azhar University, told the local Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper that he had gone with a group to negotiate between the two sides, who had reached an agreement that neither would attack the other.
Navi Pillay, the United Nations’ human rights chief, has called for a “prompt, impartial and independent investigation” into the riot police’s “excessive use of force [and] … improper use of teargas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.”
In a new communique released on its Facebook page on Wednesday, the SCAF said its forces had not used tear gas and would never “shed the blood” of the Egyptian people. The military urged the people not to listen to “rumors”.
On Tuesday, during the height of what demonstrators had called a “million-man march,” emergency volunteers rushed hundreds of injured protesters back from the front lines of the clashes to makeshift clinics in the square
At least 36 people have been killed in the fighting, according to the Health Ministry, though human rights groups have put the toll closer to 38. Many of the dead allegedly have been shot by live ammunition, according to doctors and morgue officials who spoke with Human Rights Watch.
Nearly 2,000 people have been injured across the country, and though police arrested 312 people in connection with the fighting, all but five have been released by the prosecutor general.
Protesters appeared unswayed by Tantawi’s appeals.
“There was nothing he could say that would meet our expectations. They have nothing to give us. All we want is for the end of military rule, immediately,” Sherief Gaber, a 27-year-old demonstrator, told Al Jazeera.
“People were burned once by thinking they could trust Mubarak’s people and the only thing they can trust is their own presence in the streets.”
Protesters also said they doubted the legitimacy of holding parliamentary polls in the midst of the current clashes.
“We’re simply trying to bring down all that’s left of the regime,” Gaber said. “Whether or not elections are postponed doesn’t matter.
“First, it makes no difference to the fact that we’re still living under military rule. Second, parliament will be essentially powerless. And third, can you imagine voting when police are killing people down the street? Is that a climate of any functioning democracy?”
In the Mediterranean coast city of Alexandria, lawyers and activists told Al Jazeera that at least two people were killed during protests in the northern city overnight.
At least one man, identified as 38-year-old oil engineer Sherif Sami Abdel Hamid, was killed by live ammunition.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from outside a morgue in Alexandria, said Abdel Hamid was walking with his wife and two children and not participating in the protest when a stray bullet hit him.
Witnesses said a second victim – believed to be a high school student – suffocated from tear gas in the city, though Al Jazeera could not immediately confirm the death.
The crisis began when riot police violently cleared a small encampment in Tahrir Square on Saturday, and protesters say the continued fighting has hardened their resolve to remove the military from power and complete a revolution that began in January.
“In the past [few] days we’ve seen more victims than any other three days during the entire revolution,” Amr Gharbeia, a pro-democracy activist, told Al Jazeera.
“This is an escalation. The entire movement over the past few months has been about putting the military in check. Now, the general sentiment is we don’t trust authority, or at least, we don’t trust this authority.”