PORT SAID, Egypt – Violent protests erupted outside Egypt’s capital Saturday as activists accused police of using excessive force in two cities and running over protesters, including one who was crushed to death by an armored vehicle.
The violence in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura and the Suez Canal city of Port Said came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Cairo meeting with opposition figures.
Some liberals and seculars are angry that Washington is urging them to take part in next month’s parliamentary elections and see U.S. support for the vote as backing for President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party. The U.S. Embassy invited 11 opposition figures to meet with Kerry, but five declined.
The U.S. State Department said Kerry had a telephone conversation with opposition figurehead and Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, who heads the opposition National Salvation Front. Kerry also met with Amr Moussa, a longtime diplomat and prominent figure in the group. Kerry was scheduled to meet with Morsi on Sunday.
Protesters in Mansoura and Port Said have been calling for civil disobedience campaigns, or work stoppages, to bring down Morsi. The Interior Ministry, embattled by months of demonstrations aimed against its forces, called on political groups to reign in protesters in Mansoura who stormed the city’s old police headquarters Saturday evening.
Protesters and opposition parties accuse Morsi and the Brotherhood of trying to monopolize power and of reneging on promises of reform. They also want parts of a new constitution amended and are calling for the formation of a more inclusive government.
Calls for strikes coincide with a diesel crisis that has caused microbuses, taxi and truck drivers to wait in fuel lines for hours across Egypt. The political turmoil has rocked the country’s economy and the government is struggling to contain declines in foreign reserves, which threatens to affect the country’s ability to provide subsidies that millions of Egyptians rely on for survival.
ElBaradei’s Salvation Front says the vote will only further polarize the nation and elections should not take place during the current climate of violence. Liberal parties have trailed behind their Islamist rivals in all elections since the country’s uprising two years ago.
Since the second anniversary of the uprising in late January, more than 70 people have been killed in clashes with police.
Despite calls to delay the vote, the elections commission Saturday announced procedures, including an eight-day window starting March 9 for candidates to register to run for the 546-seat legislature.
The Interior Ministry, which oversees the country’s police force, said one protester died and dozens were wounded before dawn Saturday in Mansoura where about 400 people protested outside the local council office. The ministry said protesters were chanting anti-government slogans before they cut off a main road and threw firebombs at the building.
Activists there told The Associated Press that protester Hossam Eldin Abdullah Abdelazim was killed when an armored police vehicle crushed him to death during the clashes. A funeral was held for him later in the day.
An initial autopsy said he was 35 years old.
The Interior Ministry suggested Abdelazim’s death was an accident.
Mansoura activists say a teenager also was shot in the head and critically wounded during the protests.
By nightfall, demonstrators were still clashing with police, who fired tear gas and bird shot, according to activist Abdullah el-Nikeety.
“All of Mansoura will not allow this death to be in vain,” he said. “I am seeing people who are protesting for the first time.”
The ministry said 12 policemen were wounded, nine by bird shot. Police arrested 28 people.
Abdel-Rahman Saad, a law student in Mansoura, likened Saturday’s violence to what happened on Jan. 28, 2011, the bloodiest day of the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak that led to his ouster. The office of the opposition “Tayar al-Shaabi” was turned into a field hospital to treat the wounded, he said.
Saad was among around 100 protesters who had been demonstrating on Monday along a main road in Mansoura, convincing some government employees on their way home from work to join the strike. He and others there said pro-Brotherhood residents assaulted their sit-in, and that both sides threw rocks at one another.
Police moved in to try to stop the fight that day, but clashes have continued between protesters and security forces since.
Activists uploaded videos of the violence online. One video purported to show an armored police vehicle rushing protesters at high speed on Thursday. Another video showed a protester from the overnight clashes Saturday with what appeared to be a crushed skull. The videos could not be independently verified.
Tayar al-Shaabi released a statement, saying police violence is unjustified and accused security forces of deliberately running over the protester who died. It accused Morsi and his Brotherhood backers of tyranny and said the violence in Mansoura and other cities is evidence of “people’s rejection of the current regime.”
Elsewhere in Egypt, a police car in the restive Suez Canal city of Port Said hit five protesters along a main road and sped off, according to an AP reporter at the scene. The protesters were blocking traffic during an anti-government march.
The reporter said that when the protesters refused to allow a police car passage, the driver fired warning shots into the air and rammed into the crowd, hitting five people. The protesters, who are angry with the police, then torched a number of vehicles at a nearby police station, the AP reporter said.
A police official said demonstrators first threw stones at the police vehicle before the driver hit protesters. Several hundred protesters then threw firebombs at the nearby police station, causing part of it to catch fire, the official said, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to media.
Health official Helmy el-Afani said those hit by the car were admitted to a nearby hospital with broken bones, including one man who had a broken pelvis.
Schools have been closed for a month in Port Said following deadly clashes there late last month that killed around 40 people. The violence erupted after protesters tried to storm the city’s prison in January to free 21 defendants sentenced to death for their roles in a deadly soccer riot.
It was unclear if schools would resume classes on Sunday as planned.
ElBaradei’s Dustor Party said the violence was reminiscent of police assaults on protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising. It condemned what it said was “an excessive use of force” by police and Brotherhood loyalists.
Human Rights Watch said Saturday that Morsi should “order the police to limit any use of force to what is strictly necessary.”
“Neither the Interior Ministry nor the president has admitted any wrongdoing on the part of the police in Port Said,” the statement said.
Batrawy reported from Cairo.