Violent clashes as protesters rally in Tahir Square

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An Egyptian protester holds a national flag as he chants slogans at a rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo yesterday.

Armed forces and protesters clashed, with troops firing water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators who replied with stones as they tried to march on the Defence Ministry.

For the first time in Egypt’s stormy transition, hard-line Islamists were in the forefront of street fighting with troops, a shift for groups that previously had largely stayed out of direct confrontation with the ruling military.

Thousands of demonstrators had massed in Tahrir Square, including the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis and leftist movements, demanding the generals hand over power and warning of possible vote-rigging in the presidential vote, due to start May 23. In the afternoon, some of them marched to the Defence Ministry, several miles away across Cairo in the district of Abbasiyah.

The clashes erupted when protesters tried to cut through barbed wire blocking access to the road that leads to the ministry. Live footage on state TV showed troops snatching one protester, beating him, tearing his clothes and leaving his back bloody. Water cannons were fired at protesters who took shelter and hurled back rocks. The troops replied with volleys of tear gas that pushed the demonstrators back.

The violence has thrown the first presidential election since last year’s removal of Hosni Mubarak into turmoil, with several candidates suspending their campaigns.