Soldiers stormed an anti-military protest camp outside Egypt's Cabinet building Friday, beating women with sticks and hurling glass onto protesters from the roof of the parliament in a resurgence of turmoil only a day after millions voted in parliamentary elections.
At least seven protesters were shot to death in the clashes, including a prominent Muslim cleric, activists said. The heavy-handed assault was apparently an attempt to clear out protesters who have been camped out in front of the building for three weeks demanding the ruling military leave power.
But the mayhem — which came despite promises from the army-appointed prime minister that the protesters would not be cleared by force — threatened to spark a new round of violence after deadly clashes between youth revolutionaries and security forces in November that lasted for days and left more than 40 dead.
Several women protesters cowered on the pavement as military police beat them with truncheons and long sticks. Another woman was seen bring dragged away by her hair by soldiers.
Plainclothes and uniformed security officers threw slabs of concrete and stones on protesters from atop the parliament building, according to state TV footage and videos and photos posted by protesters on social networking sites. Protesters threw fire bombs and rocks at the security officers, lighting a part of parliament on fire and chanting "Down with the military."
"It's pretty ironic that the military is throwing rocks at protesters from the parliament building, where a sign is hanging that says democracy is the power of the people," protester Mostafa Sheshtawy said.
A human rights activist said gunshot wounds killed at least seven protesters in the clashes.
Ramy Raoof of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said bodies arrived overnight at a nearby hospital. Raoof said it was difficult to tell what kind of bullets killed the protesters and that full autopsies were expected.
Hours after sunset, the crowds of protesters had grown to hundreds and clashes continued, with youths hiding behind a makeshift barrier of metal sheets and an overturned car, throwing volleys of stones at military police lined up in the broad avenue in front of the parliament and Cabinet headquarters.
There were reports of live gunfire from the rooftops. One protester, Islam Mohammed, said a fellow protester pushed him aside and was hit by a bullet in the stomach. "He took a bullet instead of me and fell to the ground. I have his blood on my shirt and hands," Mohammed said. The condition of the wounded man was not known.
Sahar Abdel-Mohsen, a youth activist, said she saw the bodies of two slain protesters brought to a Cairo hospital, both with gunshot wounds. "The blood is still dripping from the head of one of them," a 22-year-old man, she told The Associated Press. The other was shot in the chest, she said. A Health Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of he was not authorised to talk to the press, confirmed the two deaths.
Also killed was Sheik Emad Effat, a cleric from Al-Azhar, Egypt's most eminent religious institution, said Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, a prominent activist. He said Effat — who has taken a pro-revolutionary position, criticising the military and issuing a religious decree forbidding voting for former members of the regime in elections — was shot in the heart after joining the protesters outside the Cabinet.
A member of the prominent April 6th movement, Ahmed Mansour, was also killed, Raoof said.
The Health Ministry said at least 222 people were injured, including broken bones and gunshot wounds.
The assault was likely to re-ignite the tensions between revolutionaries and the military, which took power after the February 11 resignation of Hosni Mubarak. The youth activists who led the protests that ousted Mubarak accuse the military of acting in the same authoritarian way as the former president.
Ziad el-Oleimi, an activist who won a parliament seat in the first round of elections on November 28-29, told AP that military police beat him with sticks on his torso and arms and told him, "Don't imagine the parliament will protect you."
"So long as Egyptians are being humiliated and beaten on the streets, that means the revolution has not reached its goals. Taking to the streets will continue," el-Oleimi said.
The clashes took place as election officials counted ballots from the second round of parliament elections, considered to be the freest and fairest vote in Egypt's modern history. A third of Egypt's provinces voted Wednesday and Thursday. Election results from the first round of voting placed Islamist parties ahead of more liberal parties.
The armed forces retain support among many Egyptians who see it as the only entity able to run the country until presidential elections scheduled for next year.
But the new violence exacerbates the political tensions.
Members of a civilian advisory panel created by the military this month as a gesture to protesters suspended their work, demanding an immediate end to violence against protesters and a formal apology from the ruling military council. The panel is also seeking an independent investigation into the clashes. Two of its members resigned in protest.
A number of newly elected lawmakers condemned the military for the violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest winner in parliamentary elections so far, said in a statement that it rejects the assault on protesters and the use of the parliament building to attack people.
In a Tweet, leading reform figure and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote, "If the sit-in broke the law, isn't the cruelty and brutality used to break it up a greater violation of all human rights laws? This is not how nations are managed."
The protesters have been peacefully camped out in front the Cabinet building for three weeks, preventing the newly appointed prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzuri, from entering his office.
In a statement read on state TV Friday night, the ruling military said its forces did not intent to break up the protest and said officers showed self-restraint, denying the used any gunfire. It said the clashes began when a military officer was attacked while on duty and protesters tried to break into the parliament compound.
But witnesses said the clashes erupted late Thursday after troops snatched a protester, taking him into the parliament building and beating him severely. The troops later moved in, burning protesters' tents.
Hundreds of people rushed to join the protest after online video and photos showed people carrying the wounded man, his face bruised and swollen, his head wrapped in gauze and blood dripping from his nose.
Protester threw rocks and firebombs at military police, who fired back with water cannons and stones from inside parliament. Several cars were set on fire.
An American producer for Al Jazeera English, Evan Hill, was beaten by military police and his equipment and passport confiscated, the network reported.
The military's assault is also a potential embarrassment to el-Ganzuri, who vowed last month that he would not use force to break up the sit-in. El-Ganzuri had been touted as being more independent of the military than his predecessor, whose government stepped down amid the November protests amid criticism that it was simply a facade for the ruling generals.
"Who has power and who is responsible?" asked ElBaradei on his Twitter account.