CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians returned to the polls on Wednesday in a phased parliamentary election after five days of violence in Cairo that has cast a pall over the transition to democracy and drawn a U.S. rebuke of Egypt’s security forces.
Tahrir Square and surrounding streets were quiet through the night for the first time in a week. A night earlier, police and soldiers had used tear gas and batons to chase protesters demanding an end to army rule out of the square.
The latest confrontations, in which 13 people have been killed, made for a turbulent backdrop to Egypt’s first election since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February. Even before the vote got under way in November, a flare-up in Tahrir killed 42.
Nine provinces, mostly outside the capital, held run-off votes on Wednesday and Thursday in the election that is being held in stages over six weeks and ends on January 11.
The ruling army council, which took over from Mubarak, has said it will not let the transition be derailed and has pledged to hand power to an elected president by July. But protesters in the square want the army to return to barracks far sooner.
“God willing, we will complete the revolution by January 25 by bringing down the army council,” said 25-year-old protester Mahmoud, who declined to give his full name. The uprising against Mubarak began on January 25, 2011 and lasted 18 days.
Near where he spoke, the authorities have erected walls of concrete blocks, barring access from the square on roads leading to the parliament, the cabinet and Interior Ministry where violence has been the most fierce.
A few hundred hardy protesters were still in and around the square on Wednesday, surrounded by streets strewn with rocks exchanged between them and security forces. Some protesters held up bullets and cartridge cases they say were used against them.
Traffic passed through other parts of the big square.
The clashes have driven a wedge between those determined to stay on the streets and other Egyptians frustrated by the turmoil, which has damaged the economy and scared off foreign tourists, and now desperate for a return of order. Many still see the army as the only institution capable of achieving this.
“All demonstrations should stop to end this violence until we finish elections and elect a president then all the demonstrators can voice their concerns through members of parliament,” said Erian Saleeb, 64, who works in the floundering tourist industry.
But many have been shocked by images of police and soldiers hitting protesters with batons even after they fell to the ground and, in one case, dragging a prone woman by her black robe, exposing her bra, and then kicking her.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week referred to that incident of the beaten woman as “particularly shocking” and cited other cases of women protesters sexually assaulted.
“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people,” she said, in some of the strongest U.S. criticism of Egypt’s new rulers.
The United States, for which Egypt under Mubarak was a crucial ally, gives Cairo $1.3 billion a year in military aid.
The Egyptian foreign minister responded on Wednesday that Egypt would not accept any meddling in its own affairs.
“Egypt does not accept any interference in its internal affairs and conducts communications and clarifications concerning statements made by foreign officials,” the state news agency quoted Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr as saying.
“Matters like that are not taken lightly,” he was quoted as saying, in his response to a question about Clinton’s remarks.
Thousands of women marched to Tahrir on Tuesday dressed in black and flanked by male protesters who vowed to protect them from harassment chanting “the women of Egypt are a red line!”
“What happened to the girl who was stripped and dragged was sheer savagery. We cannot be silent about this. I want someone from the military council to admit responsibility,” said Sarah Rifaat, a 27-year-old environmentalist.
In a statement, the army council apologized, saying it “respects and appreciates Egyptian women and their right to protest and fully participate in political life.” An army general said it was an isolated case and under investigation.
But other generals and their advisers have condemned the pro-democracy demonstrators, who they accuse of wreaking havoc.
The financial ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Egypt on Wednesday and said it might consider knocking it down another notch because the unsettled political situation was continuing to undermine investor confidence - a further blow to an economy already reeling from months of unrest.
Moody’s said that without financial support, the country’s central bank may find it difficult to maintain adequate liquidity in the months or year ahead.
One opposition group that has lowered its profile in the protests is the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party now leads the election results after the first round, followed by ultra-conservative Salafi Islamists.
A large percentage of the individual - rather than party list - seats up for grabs in the run-offs will be contested between Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates. Egypt’s system involves a mixture of party lists and individual candidates.
Analysts say the Brotherhood has kept a low profile as it is determined to see the vote completed, putting it in a commanding position in the new assembly and securing its place in mainstream politics for the first time in its 83-year history.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed and Sherine El Madany; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich