Cairo police fought protesters demanding an end to army rule for a third day today and morgue officials said the death toll had risen to 33, with many victims shot in the worst violence since the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Tens of thousands of people packed Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the anti-Mubarak revolt in January and February, as darkness fell, despite the clashes that threaten to disrupt Egypt's first free election in decades, due to start next week.
Protesters have brandished bullet casings in the square, where police moved in with batons and tear gas on Saturday against a protest then dominated by Islamists but since driven by young people with secular aims. Police deny using live fire.
Medical sources at Cairo's main morgue said 33 corpses had been received there since Saturday, most of them with bullet wounds. At least 1,250 people have been wounded, a Health Ministry source said.
"I've seen the police beat women my mother's age. I want military rule to end," said protester Mohamed Gamal, 21.
Army generals were feted for their part in easing Mubarak out, but hostility to their rule has hardened since, especially over attempts to set new constitutional principles that would keep the military permanently beyond civilian control.
Police attacked a makeshift hospital in the square after dawn today but were driven back by protesters hurling chunks of concrete from smashed pavements, witnesses said.
"Don't go out there, you'll end up martyrs like the others," protesters told people emerging from a metro station at Tahrir Square.
The violence casts a pall over the first round of voting in Egypt's staggered and complex election process, which starts on 28 November in Cairo and elsewhere. The army says the polls will go ahead, but the unrest could deter voters in the capital.
In an apparent sop to protesters, the army council issued a law to bar from political life "those who work to corrupt political life and damage the interests of the nation".
The announcement was unlikely to satisfy political parties and activists who have called for a blanket ban on former members of Mubarak's now defunct National Democratic Party.
"This is a meaningless move by the military council. In fact this is a slap in the face of protesters and those who died to demand freedom and respect," said activist Mohamed Fahmy. "The council is out of step with the people."
Some Egyptians, including Islamists who expect to do well in the vote, say the ruling army council may be stirring insecurity to prolong its rule, a charge the military denies.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said violence must end. "This is quite evidently an attempt to thwart a democratic transition process," he said.
Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak's fall, while sectarian clashes, labour unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralysed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability.
The state news agency MENA said 63 flights to and from Cairo had been cancelled because of the latest unrest.
The military plans to keep its presidential powers until a new constitution is drawn up and a president is elected in late 2012 or early 2013. Protesters want a much swifter transition.
The army said today it had intervened in central Cairo to protect the Interior Ministry, not to clear demonstrators from nearby Tahrir Square, whom it also offered to protect.
"The protesters have a right to protest, but we must stand between them and the Interior Ministry," said General Saeed Abbas. "The armed forces will continue in their plans for parliamentary elections and securing the vote."