(AP) CAIRO - Egyptian armed forces and protesters clashed in Cairo on Friday, with troops firing water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators who threw stones as they tried to march on the Defense Ministry, a flashpoint for a new cycle of violence only weeks ahead of presidential elections.
For the first time in Egypt's stormy transition, hardline Islamists were in the forefront of street fighting with the troops, a shift for groups that previously had largely stayed out of direct confrontation with the ruling military.
The clashes centered around a sit-in that has been held for a week in a square several blocks away from the Defense Ministry, mainly by ultraconservatives known as Salafis, who were protesting the disqualification of their favored candidate from the presidential election. On Wednesday, still unidentified assailants attacked the gathering, sparking clashes that killed nine.
Wednesday's violence fueled anger at the military and now more groups are taking to the streets.
Earlier Friday, thousands of demonstrators massed in Cairo's downtown Tahrir Square, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and leftist movements. They demanded the generals hand over power to civilians and warned of possible vote-rigging in the presidential vote, due to start May 23. In the afternoon, some of them marched to the Defense Ministry, several miles away across Cairo in the district of Abbasiyah.
The clashes erupted when protesters in Abbasiyah tried to cut through barbed wire between them and troops blocking access to the road that leads up to the ministry. Live footage on state TV showed troops snatching one protester, beating him with metal sticks, tearing his clothes and leaving his back bloody. Soldiers with body shield and red helmets were seen carrying a soldier who collapsed with his nose bleeding.
The troops fired water cannons at protesters and hurled stones at them to keep them from advancing. The protesters took shelter behind metal sheets snatched from a nearby construction site and hurled back stones. Others climbed the roof of a nearby university and showered soldiers with rocks from above. The troops then opened up with heavy volleys of tear gas that pushed the demonstrators back. Protesters sat fire to garbage to raise smoke to lessen the impact of the gas.
After several hours, troops swept through the protesters' camp and drove them out of the area, chasing them in armored vehicles through nearby streets.
The Health Ministry reported eight protesters were injured but ambulance workers said they carried at least 40 to hospitals. Protesters on motorcycles were rushing injured from the frontline to field hospital.
The violence has thrown the first presidential election since last year's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak into turmoil, with several candidates suspending their campaigns in protest against the military's handling of the situation.
On Thursday, members of the military council repeated their pledge to hand power once one of the 13 presidential candidates wins, an apparent attempt to assuage concerns that they would use the violence as an excuse to stay on.
But they also warned demonstrators against holding Friday protests near the Defense Ministry and said soldiers have the right to defend their positions, sparking fears of renewal of violence.
"Self-defense is applicable against anyone who approaches a military facility. Whoever does that must endure the consequences," Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mullah sternly warned. "The Defense Ministry, all military units and facilities are symbols of military honor and the dignity of the state, those who approach them will have themselves to blame."
Across the political spectrum there is anger at the military. Liberal, leftist and secular groups that launched last year's anti-Mubarak uprising have long been against the generals, accusing them of leading a confused transition, using oppressive measures and maneuvering to maintain a degree of power even after the presidential election and handover of authority.More recently, Islamists including the Muslim Brotherhood have also turned against the military.
But there were divisions among antimilitary groups over backing the Salafis in the Abbasiyah protest, particularly since one of their main causes was the reinstatement of their disqualified candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail. The Brotherhood protested in Tahrir on Friday but did not join the Abbasiyah gathering that turned violent.
Some liberal and leftist groups joined the Salafis in Abbasiyah on Friday, saying they must show solidarity after Wednesday's deaths and help defend the right to protest wherever they want. But some of them withdrew when protesters tried to break through the barbed wire to march on the ministry.
"The farce in Abbasiyah showed that this is a battle that does not serve any interest for the Egyptian people," said the leftist group April 6. "We decided to withdraw and not participate in the shedding of Egyptian blood."
The candidate Abu Ismail, a lawyer-turned-preacher, was disqualified from the race because his mother allegedly held American citizenship, making him ineligible under election laws. He has encouraged his followers to take the streets. "We are in the face of a plot to abort the revolution," his spokesman Gamal Saber told the Al-Jazeera network on Friday.
That has raised accusations that Abu Ismail was dragging others into a confrontation with the military.
"The man has believed his own lies and is now land-mining Egypt to serve his own interests," wrote Ibrahim Eissa, a chief editor of the independent Tahrir daily.
The deadly clashes on Wednesday have stoked tensions surrounding the pro-Abu Ismail Salafis. The circumstances of the violence remain unclear.
The protester say the assailants were hired thugs or plainclothes police and troops, similar to past attacks on protests. They say the military allowed Wednesday's attack to take place, noting troops nearby did nothing to stop fighting for hours. Such thugs and out-of-uniform security forces have been used in the past to crush demonstrations.
But the Abbasiyah protests appear also to have drawn in local residents, angry at the weeklong sit-in that have shut down their neighborhood. Locals complained that the Islamists sealed off streets and intimidated families.
Several Abbasiyah residents claimed to have seen men with the characteristic long beards of Salafis among the protesters firing automatic weapons in the air during Wednesday's violence.
"I have nothing to do with politics. But Salafis attacked us and attack our houses," said Essam Bakheet, an Abbasiyah resident. "They carry black banners and chant `come to Jihad' as if they are conquering Palestine or fighting Jews."
Another 42-year-old resident Sami Mahmoud said that he was guarding his building when a group of armed men mostly bearded were moving from one street to the other and shooting in the air and at balconies.
"Nobody protected us. The military police didn't intervene," he said.
Anger against bearded men led some to shave off their beards, as Mona Hassan, an employee at Dar al-Shafaa hospital, which received a number of victims. "Our bearded colleagues are shaving off their beards because people here are searching for them to kill."