Violence in central Cairo surged in the early hours on Wednesday, claiming at least nine lives, and raising fresh anxieties about the conduct of the first presidential elections that has followed a popular uprising which unseated the former President, Hosni Mubarak.

The deaths on Wednesday resulted from fierce clashes between antimilitary protesters and assailants who attacked with stones, clubs and birdshot. The bloody fighting, in which the protesters also used stones and Molotov cocktails — flaming fire bombs — marked a peak in a protest which began four days ago. The escalating protest began as a sit-in by the supporters of Hazeh Salah Abu Ismail, affiliated to an extremist Salafi organisation, whose candidacy for the presidency had been earlier rejected. However, the assemblage outside the Defence Ministry building morphed into a wider antimilitary protest, in which activists of a liberal persuasion also participated in strength.

The stream of the dead and injured, many bleeding heavily on account of gashes to the face and the head, kept the team of volunteer doctors fully engaged on Wednesday. The website of the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram is reporting that these medics who have grouped under the banner of Tahrir Doctors are confirming that live bullets were used to target the demonstrators. They complained that with the exception of the Al-Shefa hospital, which, was reportedly later attacked by the assailants, several nearby hospitals closed down, instead of dealing with the emergency.

The bloodshed evoked an angry response from key individuals and parties who were in the electoral fray. Mohamed el-Mursi, Muslim Brotherhood's candidate announced during a morning press conference that he was suspending his campaign for two days. He said he had taken the decision as a mark of “solidarity with the protesters, and in opposition to the killing and the bloodshed”.

Mr. Mursi — one of the front-runners for the May 23 elections — warned the interim military rulers, not to use the chaos caused by the violence as an excuse to postpone the polls. “The elections have to take place at their scheduled time,” he stressed.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a charismatic candidate formerly with the Brotherhood leader, also decided to halt his campaign, though the duration was yet not clear. Most of the leading politicians had plans of the visiting the field hospital where many of the injured were being treated.

The Salafist groups who had started the sit-in turned the inflamed emotions resulting from the violence to fire another salvo at the military's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the de facto rulers.

Mr. Abu-Ismail, Salafi preacher, appealed to all political parties to boycott a SCAF meeting that had been scheduled on Wednesday to discuss the drafting of a new constitution. The few furiously penned lines on his Facebook page read: “Our blood is being spilled in the streets and you're meeting with the SCAF?”

As the candidates reframed their electoral plans, much of their anger was directed against the military which failed to turn up on time to seal the violence. Witnesses said that for hours, no one intervened to stop the pitched street battles, which triggered small fires from the Molotov cocktails.

With the sentiment growing against the postponement of the elections, the military authorities were emphatic in announcing that a delay of the polls was not on the cards. Al Ahram quoted a military source as saying: “Field Marshal Tantawi [head of SCAF]... has stressed that he will hand over power at the end of June.”

Keywords: Egypt crisis

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