CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s army-backed government said it was preparing to move ousted President Hosni Mubarak to a Cairo prison hospital in an apparent bid to calm protests, but clashes continued with police firing tear gas at demonstrators hurling rocks and broken tiles.
Protesters demanding a swift presidential election and an early handover of power by the army fought police for a fourth day outside the Interior Ministry, which they accuse of failing to prevent the deaths last week of 74 people after a soccer match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said.
Seven people have been killed in Cairo and five more in Suez in protests since then.
“The demand is that the army step down politically and announce the start of nominations for the presidential election immediately,” said Waleed Saleh, 30, a lawyer and activist with a mask at the ready, speaking near the ministry on Sunday.
The soccer disaster and tactics of security forces in dealing with protesters has added to anger at the army’s handling of the transition and fuelled calls for the army to return to barracks sooner than it had envisaged.
Political figures and a civilian advisory body to the military have suggested bringing forward a presidential vote to April or May, from the June date foreseen in the transition timetable of the army, which took power after Mubarak quit.
In a concession to protesters, a ministry official said Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim had ordered a hospital at Cairo’s Torah prison be prepared to receive Mubarak, who has until now been in a military hospital.
Protesters have long complained the generals were sparing their former commander the humiliation of jail by detaining him in a military hospital during his trial over the deaths of protesters during the uprising that ousted him.
The hospital in Torah prison, where other ex-Mubarak officials and allies are held, had been deemed by officials not fit to handle Mubarak’s treatment, though the former president’s precise ailment is unclear.
The minister earlier ordered Mubarak-era officials at Torah to be split between five prisons, responding to protesters who accused the authorities of giving them special treatment by keeping them together at Torah. Those at Torah include Mubarak’s two sons and several ex-ministers and top security officials.
Calls for a swifter handover of power to civilians have mounted, and the Muslim Brotherhood which has the biggest bloc in a newly elected parliament, added its voice on Saturday to calls for a faster transition.
An army-appointed civilian council set up to advise the military is proposing accepting nominations for the presidency from February 23, nearly two months sooner than the April 15 date previously announced. This could lead to a vote in April or May.
“If the army adopts that proposal, it will reduce the level of tension,” said Saleh, though he voiced a view popular among activists that the army might still try to influence policy from behind the scenes even with a president in place.
Protesters have also been demanding retribution after the soccer deaths and for those killed in protests.
There has been intense speculation about the cause of the soccer stadium disaster, Egypt’s worst. The interior minister has blamed provocations by rival fans although he said there were security shortcomings. Protesters blame the police for allowing or even prodding the violence.
“Those people over there are the reason for the deaths in Port Said,” said 25-year-old Mahmoud Gaber, pointing to the police lines moments before a police riot car advanced and fired teargas on youths in the street, briefly pushing them back.
Many are angry there has not been a deep clear-out in the police force and that officers use the same heavy-handed tactics against protests as in Mubarak’s era.
The interior minister defended the actions of police in dealing with protests, saying officers had shown “unusual self-restraint.” He also urged protesters to stay in Tahrir Square and identify those stirring up trouble.
Protesters and police have often negotiated brief truces to calm the situation. But on at least two occasions Reuters journalists saw police re-igniting skirmishes by firing teargas or throwing stones at lines of protesters.
But many ordinary Egyptians are increasingly worried by the continued turmoil, and some see the army as the only institution able to guard the nation against a descent into complete chaos.
Near one of the streets where the clashes were occurring, one man, Waleed al-Hakim, criticised the demonstration. “Those are not protesters, those are thugs,” he said.
But others snapped back at him including one youth with a scarf around his face who said: “We are peaceful protesters and they are firing teargas at us. Why? What did we do to them?”
Newly elected independent parliamentarian Yasser Qadri, a member of the assembly’s national security committee, said his committee was proposing drawing lines near state buildings.
“Those who cross the red line would be dealt with according to the law that gives security the right to protect state buildings from attacks,” he said.
But that could prove a provocation to protesters who have ignored big concrete barriers.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry, Sherine El Madany and Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Sophie Hares