Demonstrators armed with stones and petrol bombs clashed with troops wielding truncheons and electric prods in Cairo Friday, witnesses said, in the worst violence since the start of Egypt's first free election in six decades.
Military police tried to break up a sit-in by pro-democracy activists overnight and anger at their rough tactics erupted into clashes that quickly turned the streets around parliament into a rock-strewn battle zone.
In a pattern of spreading violence that has become a familiar refrain during nine months of army rule since President Hosni Mubarak's overthrow, protesters regrouped in growing numbers as resentment at security forces' tactics grew.
By early afternoon, troops were trying to disperse around 10,000 protesters with truncheons and what witnesses said appeared to be cattle prods that they used to give electric shocks to some of the demonstrators.
Ambulance sirens wailed, reports of beatings of well-known democracy activists buzzed across social media and politicians from Islamists to liberals lined up to condemn the army's heavy-handed tactics.
Even if the sit-in was not legal, should it be dispersed with such brutality and barbarity? presidential candidate and former U.N. nuclear watchdog director Mohamed ElBaradei said on Facebook.
A health ministry official said 99 people had been injured in the clashes and five had gunshot wounds.
The sit-in outside the cabinet office was a remnant of far bigger protests last month in Cairo's Tahrir Square and nearby streets that left dozens dead and overshadowed the build-up to the first parliamentary vote since Mubarak's fall in February.
In Friday's disturbances, cars were set alight and part of a state building was torched.
Troops and unidentified men in plainclothes hurled rocks from the roof of one parliament building on protesters who threw stones, shards of glass and petrol bombs.
Demonstrators piled car tyres and plastic materials in the street and set them alight to send up plumes of black smoke and block the view of the street from above.
The head of the ruling military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, ordered that everyone injured in the fighting be treated in army hospitals, state television said.
An army source told Reuters that 32 security personnel who were guarding the parliament were also injured trying to stop protesters breaking into the building.
Ziad el-Elaimy, a leading figure in the liberal Egyptian Bloc who ran for parliament in Cairo, said he was beaten by security forces when he arrived to witness the scene.
When he protested, army officers told him: To hell with you and your parliament, according to Elaimy.
The six-week vote for the lower house of parliament has been mostly peaceful since it began on November 28. A big first-round turnout took some of the steam out of street protests aimed at pressuring the military to hand power immediately to civilians.
Those protests descended into days of clashes near Tahrir Square, prompting the army-backed government to resign and the ruling generals to pledge to step aside by the end of June 2012.
A new cabinet is due Sunday to hold a first full meeting since it was sworn in on December 7 and plans to weigh new austerity measures to address a wider-than-expected budget deficit.
Protesters have occupied an area outside the cabinet office since late November, forcing the government to meet elsewhere. They said they were provoked into violence by the army, which was looking for an excuse to move in and break up the sit-in.
They said fighting flared after images were posted online of an activist who took part in the sit-in - named as Abboudi Ibrahim - being supported by a crowd, his face badly bruised and eyes swollen and shut after he was detained by military police.
Protester Bebars Mohamed, 19, said he was at the sit-in when military police grabbed Ibrahim.
The army pushed us away from Parliament Street and burnt the tents. They threw rocks and glass on us, he said.
ARMY STILL IN CHARGE
Turnout appeared relatively high again in the second round of the parliamentary vote Wednesday and Thursday, which took place in parts of greater Cairo, Ismailiya and Suez in the east, Aswan to the south and Nile Delta regions in the north.
The leading group, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said it expected to hold on to its lead but that it was not clear whether its share of the vote would stay around the 40 percent mark.
Early indications suggested the FJP was maintaining its lead, followed again by the hardline Islamist Salafi Al-Nour party and the liberal Egyptian Bloc in third place, state newspapers reported Friday.
The army, which took over after Mubarak was ousted, is in charge until a presidential election in mid-2012, but parliament will have a popular mandate that the ruling military council will find difficult to ignore as it oversees the transition.
The council wants to spoil the elections. They don't want a parliament that has popular legitimacy unlike them and would challenge their authority, said Shadi Fawzy, a pro-democracy activist. I don't believe they will hand over power in June.
Egypt's official news agency said a new civilian advisory council that was set up to offer guidance to the army generals on policy would meet later Friday to discuss the clashes.
But two members of the council, whose creation was seen as a concession to campaigners demanding an end to army rule, resigned because of the violence and said they would not attend.
Political experts said Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, who has made law and order a top priority for his new interim government, appeared unsure of how to act.
The prime minister said he now had presidential powers, but he hasn't moved or spoken or issued clear directions, Adel Soliman, head of the International Center for Future and Strategic Studies in Cairo. There is complete silence from all those in power.
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad, Omar Fahmy, Shaimaa Fayed, Ashraf Fahim, Amr Dalsh; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)