CAIRO — Bloody clashes erupted in Cairo on Saturday between protesters demanding political change and loyalists of the ruling military council, hours after the military ruler pledged democracy.
Riot police fired tear gas at protesters who were being pelted with rocks and bottles by loyalists in the Abasseya district near the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which took power when president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.
One petrol bomb landed near a protester, setting his clothes on fire, and dozens of injured were treated by ambulance crews on the scene, an AFP correspondent said.
The health ministry, in a statement carried by the official MENA news agency, said 55 people were injured in the clashes, including six who needed hospital treatment.
There were chaotic scenes as army loyalists, all civilians, climbed onto the roofs of buildings and threw rocks at the protesters.
Soldiers and riot police lined a main street in Abasseya while army loyalists blocked other streets in the area, trapping protesters in the middle.
“We have asked them to let us go — they’ve refused,” long-time activist and blogger Wael Abbas told AFP.
One protester used the microphone in a nearby mosque to urge the army through the building’s loudspeakers to “protect the protesters.”
The clashes came after the ruling military accused protesters camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, singling out the pro-democracy April 6 movement which helped launch the uprising that toppled Mubarak, of sowing instability.
“The thugs are surrounding us, the riot police is with them and the army is doing nothing,” protester Loai Omran, 40, told AFP.
“But this time, they are going to make us out to be the traitors,” he said, standing on the street littered with stones and glass.
A military official told state television that “the armed forces have dealt with restraint, despite the fact that Tahrir protesters were pelting the army with stones and bottles.”
It was the second time protesters had tried to reach the SCAF headquarters, after a similar attempt was prevented overnight.
Hours earlier, Egypt’s military ruler said he was committed to democracy.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of SCAF and Mubarak’s long-time defence minister, pledged in a television address to work for a free system through fair elections and a constitution.
He vowed to “pave the way for the pillars of a democratic state, which promotes freedom, the rights of citizens through free and fair parliamentary elections, a new constitution and the election of a president chosen by the people.”
Tantawi’s address came after the SCAF accused the April 6 pro-democracy movement of sowing strife after hundreds tried to march to the defence ministry overnight.
Hundreds of people had left Tahrir Square and headed for the ministry to denounce the army’s handling of the transition.
They were blocked by hundreds of military police and armoured vehicles, who closed off large parts of the capital’s centre, a security official said.
One man was injured, apparently when a blank cartridge hit his head, a security official said.
The military rulers accused the April 6 movement of “driving a wedge between the people and the army.”
In a statement distributed to reporters, the youth group denied the military’s accusations.
“We used to think that the revolution changed matters for the better, but we were filled with sadness after this statement was issued,” it said.
“We have never tried to pit the military against the people. We were directing political criticism towards the military council, that adopted the Egyptian people’s demands,” it said.
It was the first time a group has been singled out by the military, which called on “the people to exercise vigilance and not to be drawn into this suspicious plot which aims to undermine Egypt’s stability.”
Despite Mubarak’s spectacular downfall, protesters have continued to take to the streets to denounce the military council over the slow pace of reform.
The military has also come under fire for alleged rights abuses and for using Mubarak-era tactics to stifle dissent.
Since July 8, protesters have camped out in Tahrir Square — epicentre of protests that toppled Mubarak — and vowed to continue until their demands are met.
Their key demands are the trial of former regime officials, an end to military trials of civilians, the purge of Mubarak officials from senior government posts and the redistribution of wealth.