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Chaos Builds in the Streets of Cairo as a Truce Fails

Tara Todras-Whitehill/Associated Press

CAIRO — The outskirts of Tahrir Square, the iconic landmark of Egypt’s revolution, plunged into chaos on Wednesday, after attempts by the Egyptian military, religious clerics and doctors failed to stanch a fifth day of fighting that has posed the greatest crisis to the country since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The fighting in darkened streets, suffused with tear gas and eerily illuminated by the flashing lights of police cars and the floodlights of armored personnel carriers, seemed to stand as a metaphor for a political transition that has careened into deep uncertainty just days before elections that were supposed to anchor the shift from military to civilian rule.

The military that seized power with Mr. Mubarak’s fall rebuffed protesters’ demands to surrender authority this week, and the political elite has seemed paralyzed or defensive over the unrest. The discontent in Tahrir Square has broadened from demands for the generals to cede control and anger over bloodshed into dissatisfaction with a transition that has delivered precious little since the uprising’s heady days in February.

“This is a revolution of the hungry!” declared Amr Ali Mohammed, a 23-year-old protester taking a break from the battle with the police. “Egyptians have had enough.”

The sense of uncertainty that prevailed in Egypt echoed some of the most anxious days of the uprising that began in January against Mr. Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of rule. Though life went on in much of the capital, the protests demonstrated a resilience they had lacked for months, and episodes of dissent have erupted in other parts of the country, including Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. Neither politicians nor the military seemed ready to embrace a drastic step that many insisted was needed to end the unrest.

By nightfall, crowds rivaled their size on past days, anchored by a demand that has become the anthem since the crisis began: the fall of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de facto leader and longtime colleague of Mr. Mubarak. In the square’s side streets, youths fought the police to the backdrop of unending ambulance sirens.

“If he leaves it like this and stays silent, it will be a disaster,” said Suleiman Mahmoud, as he stood in a street that looked like a symbol for urban distress — pools of stagnant water strewn with rocks, shattered glass, trash and fallen tree branches. “He’ll pay the price, and the country will pay the price. Stubbornness is not a solution.”

With political leaders tentative, and signs that the military was unable to exert control over the police, other voices emerged in the country on Wednesday, demanding some kind of action. Most important was the grand imam of Al Azhar, an institution that is a prominent seat of religious scholarship long co-opted by the government but now seeking a more independent role.

The grand imam, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayyeb, called on the police not to fire on protesters, “no matter what the reason.” He urged protesters to restrain themselves and demanded that the military, whose relations with the Interior Ministry and its loathed police forces have long been strained, do everything it could to prevent more clashes.

“Al Azhar reminds everybody that dialogue stained with blood is doomed, and its fruit will be bitter in the throats of everyone,” the cleric’s statement said.

His warnings were echoed abroad, in a sign of growing international concern over the crisis in the Arab world’s most populous country. The French Foreign Ministry condemned what it called “the excessive use of force against demonstrators,” and Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief, called for an independent investigation into the bloodshed, which has left 38 people dead and hundreds wounded since it began Saturday.

A sentiment pronounced often here has become a refrain of sorts in moments of crisis: a foreign hand. With parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on Monday, the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful and well-organized Islamic movement in Egypt, suggested in a statement on Wednesday that “there has been a plan to create chaos,” and Field Marshal Tantawi made the same contention in an address to the country on Tuesday night.

Even some onlookers at Wednesday’s events in the square struggled to make sense of the turn of events.

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