The death toll in three days of clashes in Cairo and other Egyptian cities between police and protesters against army rule rose to 22 on Monday and threatened to disrupt the first free parliamentary elections in decades.

The military generals were feted as champions of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February, but the violence since Saturday when police moved to break up a sit-in Cairo's Tahrir Square has underlined growing hostility to their continued control.

I've seen the police beat women my mother's age. I want military rule to end, said 21-year-old Mohamed Gamal. I will just go home in the evening to change my clothes and return.

After dawn on Monday, police attacked a makeshift hospital but were driven back by protesters who smashed pavements and hurled the chunks of concrete at them, witnesses said.

Don't go out there, you'll end up martyrs like the others, protesters told people emerging from Tahrir's subway station into the square, where around 4,000 had gathered by midday.

Sectarian clashes, an exodus of tourists and labour unrest since Mubarak's overthrow have throttled the economy and left many ordinary Egyptians yearning for stability.

The army insists the violence will not delay the election, due in just over a week, but it could undermine its legitimacy.

State media said 22 people had died and hundreds had been wounded in clashes since Friday over a demonstration begun by Islamists but since dominated by the young activists who brought down Mubarak.

Some in Egypt, including the Islamists who expect a strong showing at the polls, say the fragile state of security is part of an army tactic to stay in power.

Finland's Foreign Minister, visiting Tahrir Square on Monday, said images and reports of the violence in Cairo were indefensible.

Is this a provocation to try and stop the democratic process and the elections? Its very important that the elections begin next week, he said.

The army has denied it wants to stay in charge and insists it can ensure security during the vote.

TRANSITION TIMETABLE

Egyptians elect a new parliament in a staggered vote that starts on November 28, but presidential powers remain with the army until a presidential poll, which may not happen until late 2012 or early 2013. Protesters want a much swifter transition.

Security forces burnt down banners and Internet clips, which could not be independently checked, showed police beating protesters with sticks, pulling them by the hair and, in one case, dumping what appeared to be a corpse on piles of rubbish.

Unfortunately the interior ministry still deals with protests with the same security mentality as during Mubarak's administration, said military analyst Safwat Zayaat.

Residents reacted angrily when police fired tear gas into a crowd gathered below a burning building 200 metres from Tahrir Square, hindering the rescue of trapped residents.

There is clearly no going back as you can see this violence cannot be swept under the table, said protester Essam Gouda. He said two marches would converge on Tahrir by mid-afternoon.

We aim to control the entry points to the square so that security doesn't block protesters from entering, he said.

PROTESTS TARGET MILITARY RULERS

Tahrir Square was the rallying point for protesters in Cairo when an 18-day uprising toppled Mubarak and has become the theatre of choice for regular protests against the army rulers.

We are all insisting on having the election on time -- the government, parties and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, cabinet spokesman Mohamed Hegazy told Reuters.

Demonstrators brandished spent shotgun cartridges and bullet casings, although police denied using live rounds during the street battles for control of Tahrir and surrounding streets.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defence minister for two decades and who leads the army council, has become a target of protests.

I don't want Tantawi ... I am staying tonight, said Ayman Ramadan, a data entry employee, said early on Monday morning.

Outside the burning apartment building, protesters chanted: Tantawi burnt it and here are the revolutionaries!

The demonstration that began on Friday was initially led by Islamists, angry at a bid by the army-backed cabinet to lay down principles for a new constitution that would have kept the army beyond the control of a future civilian government.

But since then, the protest has largely been driven by the same youthful activists who galvanised Egyptians to bring down Mubarak, putting national pride before religion.

One of those groups, April 6 youth movement, told Egypt's state news agency it would stay in Tahrir and continue sit-ins in other cities until its demands were met, including a call for a presidential vote no later than April.

Other demands include replacing the current cabinet with a national salvation government and an immediate investigation into the clashes in Tahrir and trial of those implicated in it.

Presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultra-conservative Salafi Islamist, told protesters: We are demanding as the minimum that power be handed over within six months.

Analysts say a surge in violence during the vote, a common feature of elections in Mubarak's era of rigged polls, could undermine the assembly's legitimacy if the result is questioned and deepen frustration at the army's handling of the transition.

Presidential hopefuls Mohamed ElBaradei and Abdallah al-Ashaal denounced violence against protesters and called for a national salvation government, state news agency MENA said.

The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, urged Egypt's interim authority to halt the violence.

I urge calm and restraint and condemn the use of violence in the strongest terms, she said.

Liberal groups are dismayed by the military trials of thousands of civilians and the army's failure to scrap a hated emergency law. Islamists eying a strong showing in the next parliament suspect the army wants to curtail their influence.

Analysts say Islamists could win 40 percent of parliamentary seats, with a big portion going to the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organised Islamist group.

(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad; writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Pfeiffer; editing by Philippa Fletcher)