CAIRO — Army troops firing in the air clashed Sunday with stone-throwing protesters in the strategic city of Suez after crowds blocked a key highway to push for faster reform efforts, including probes of alleged abuses during the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
The crackdown by military forces threatened to sharply escalate tensions in Suez, a city alongside the famous canal about 80 miles (130 kilometers) east of Cairo, which has been hit by days of unrest over calls for swifter action against Mubarak-era officials.
In Cairo, meanwhile, protesters blocked access to the Egyptian capital's largest government building and threatened to expand sit-ins to other sites.
The confrontations underscore the growing frustration that political momentum has stalled since Mubarak's downfall in February. The protesters want justice for the nearly 900 protesters killed by security forces during the uprising and seek a faster pace for trials of allegedly corrupt figures from Mubarak's regime.
In Suez, protesters blocked the coastal road linking the city to the Red Sea ports of Safagah and Hurghada, disrupting maritime trade by trapping hundreds of cars and trucks. Military forces – firing in the air and carrying electric stun batons – tried to clear the highway but protesters responded by hurling stones and setting ablaze tire barricades, said witnesses.
The roadway was later cleared and open to traffic, an army spokesman, Islam Raafat, told Egypt's state-run news agency MENA.
"They attacked us and they opened fire on us," complained protester Reda Fathi. "This is how the army is dealing with us now."
Another protester, Sayyed Anwar, said that violence will backfire and demonstrators will attempt to storm the highway again. "If this is the way they deal with us, we are not going to leave," said Anwar.
In Cairo, demonstrators blocked access to the central government administration building in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak. They also halted traffic and threatened to broaden the sit-ins to the nearby Interior Ministry and state TV building if their demands are not met.
On Friday, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Cairo and several cities across Egypt to protest what they see as the slow pace to cleanse institutions from Mubarak loyalists. Only several hundred protesters remained at Tahrir Square on Sunday.
Beside justice for the victims of the uprising, the protesters are demanding the resignations of Interior Minister al-Issawi, who is in charge of the hated police force, and the country's top prosecutor.
They also want to stop military trials for civilians and the release and retrial of civilians convicted by the military tribunals.
Ali el-Ganadi, father of a slain protester, said people want to see a purge of all remnants of Mubarak's regime.
"Many things haven't changed. The corrupt regime is still in place, applying the same old mechanism," he said. "We hope that the military council listens and takes quick action before it is too late."
In an attempt to step up their campaign, protesters in Cairo called for massive, nationwide demonstrations on Tuesday. "We will not leave the square until all our demands are met," said Essam el-Shareef, one of the protest leaders.
The tense atmosphere casts a shadow on Egypt's interim government.
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said in a televised speech Saturday that he ordered the dismissal of all police officers involved in killings of protesters. But the country's interior minister, Mansour al-Issawi, said that he will not implement Sharaf's orders and threatened to resign.
Last week, al-Issawi disclosed a plan to remove top commanders at the Interior Ministry and replace them with lower-ranking officials, aiming at reforming the most hated institution in Egypt after decades of being the heavy hand for Mubarak and his predecessors.