CAIRO - As least 11 people were killed after assailants attacked protesters staging a sit-in near Egypt’s Ministry of Defense early Wednesday, sparking hours of clashes that threw the coming presidential election into disarray as at least five candidates announced the suspension of their campaigns to protest the deaths.
The victims, killed by gunfire, clubs, or knives, included a third-year medical student from Luxor and several young men from the Cairo neighborhood Abbasiyah, where the fighting occurred, doctors said. It went for hours with no intervention from the authorities - suggesting the possibility of government complicity - as opposing sides fought a pitched battle hurling stones and incendiary devices, turning a residential neighborhood into a war zone marked by scattered fires.
At around 1 p.m., the security services suddenly arrived and the fighting stopped.
The confusing, lethal episode has widened a rift between Egypt’s military rulers and protesters who are pushing for a speedy transition to a civilian government, with the protesters convinced that their assailants were doing the bidding of the military. And the event cast a shadow over Egypt’s coming presidential election, shortening an already brief campaign season as it sharpened the differences among candidates.
One of the presidential front-runners, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader who has attracted leftists and liberals with his candidacy, suspended his campaign indefinitely, writing on Twitter: “We can’t discuss tomorrow while our youth are drowning in their blood today.’’
One of his main rivals, Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian minister, announced that he was not suspending his campaign but that he was stopping television advertising temporarily and had “canceled many events.’’ In a statement, Moussa criticized the security services for standing “idly by.’’
Both candidates had been scheduled to appear in a much-anticipated debate Thursday night, but that too was delayed because of the violence. Yosri Fouda, a journalist who was to moderate the debate, announced on his Twitter account that it would be postponed until next week.
Four other candidates also suspended their campaigns, including Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate; Khalid Ali, a human rights lawyer; and Hamdeen Sabbahi, an activist and founder of the Nasserist Party.
In a morning briefing for foreign reporters, Morsi warned the ruling military council against using the violence as an excuse to delay the elections, reflecting a widespread fear that the council is looking for a pretense to retain power. But his comments also reflected an intensifying power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military as the presidential vote approaches.
“We hold the military council responsible first, because it’s the one running the country,’’ Morsi said. “It’s the one with the authority in its hand. We will not allow for the presidential elections to be postponed at all.’’
In statements released through official outlets, the military did not exactly assuage the fears. A member of Parliament, Mustapha Bakri, quoted the army chief of staff, Sami Anan, as telling Bakri that the military was “considering’’ handing over power on May 24, if the first round of voting yielded an outright winner.
In the statements, the ruling council also promised not to harm protesters as it deployed its troops. The statement did not address why the security services took hours - perhaps as long as 12 hours - before responding to the violence.
Doctors gave death tolls ranging from 11 to 13. Dr. Saleh Mohamed, who worked at a field hospital near the clashes, said he treated five patients who died of gunshot wounds to the head. Several doctors spoke of at least one man whose throat was cut.
Of the nearly 200 injuries reported by officials, several people were blinded by birdshot, Mohamed said.