Unconvinced by army’s promises, Egypt protesters battle on to end military rule


Thousands of protesters rallied Wednesday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square demanding an end to military rule, despite a promise by Egypt’s interim leader to transfer power to an elected president by mid-2012.

Less than two hours after the speech by Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, clashes have erupted again on Mohammed Mahmoud Street, a sign that activists and politician say indicates that the nation’s military rulers are following the former regime’s failed strategy to remain in power.

Eyewitnesses and doctors at a makeshift field hospital said there were an invisible substance causing suffocation and inflammation of the eyes. Reports of protesters fainting were widespread, a report carried by Egypt’s al-Masry al-Youm said on Wednesday.

One man was killed in clashes early on Wednesday in the second city Alexandria, one of several towns that saw unrest, as protesters continued to battle police around the interior ministry headquarters, close to the central Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The death toll from confrontations between protesters and police around Egypt has reached 32, in addition to around 870 others injured, an Al Arabiya correspondent said citing the health ministry.

Calling for independent probe

The U.N. human rights chief called Wednesday for an independent probe into the killing of protestors by Egypt's military and security forces.

“I urge the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protestors in Tahrir square and elsewhere in the country,” said Navi Pillay, adding that “there should be a prompt, impartial and independent investigation, and accountability for those found responsible for the abuses.”

“There should be a prompt, impartial and independent investigation, and accountability for those found responsible for the abuses that have taken place should be ensured,” added the U.N. rights chief.

Police have been locked in sporadic clashes with protesters demanding the end of military rule, according to AFP.

Police have denied using live ammunition but most of the dead in the preceding five days of protest have had bullet wounds, medics say. And demonstrators have shown off cartridge casings they say come from weapons used by the authorities.

“We will stay here until the field marshal leaves and a transitional council from the people takes over,” Abdullah Galal, 28, a computer sales manager, told Reuters as people set up tents across the sprawling Tahrir traffic interchange which has become the abiding symbol of this year’s “Arab Spring” revolts.

The army is ready to go back to barracks immediately if the people wish that through a popular referendum, if need be

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi

Crisis meeting with political parties

A stream of motorbikes and ambulances ferried away the injured from the skirmishing on the outskirts of the protest, while at the centre of the square a mood of quiet occupation set in as blankets were brought out and small bonfires lit.

Tens of thousands of protesters massed in Tahrir Square on Tuesday to demand a transition to civilian rule.

Before Tantawi’s speech, Egypt's ruling military council held a five-hour crisis meeting with nearly 12 political party representatives and presidential hopefuls earlier on Tuesday. They agreed that a new government would be formed and that presidential elections would be held by the end of June, about six months sooner than planned.

Egypt’s army chief, seeking to defuse street protests, promised a swifter handover to civilian rule but failed to convince thousands of hardcore demonstrators, some of whom battled police through the night.

Confirming Egypt’s first free parliamentary election in decades will start on Monday, the ruling military council also accepted the resignation of the civilian prime minister and his cabinet, who had incensed democrats with a short-lived proposal that the army remain beyond civilian control under any new constitution.

But Tantawi angered many of the youthful demonstrators on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in other cities by suggesting a referendum on whether military rule should end earlier - a move many saw as a ploy to appeal to the many Egyptians who fear further upheaval and to divide those from the young activists.

“Leave! Leave!” came the chants in Cairo, according to Reuters, and, in an echo of February’s chorus: “The people want to topple the marshal.”

Long into the night, while small groups on the fringes skirmished with police in clouds of teargas, those occupying the main square sang: “He must go! We won't go!”

It is a battle of wills whose outcome is hard to predict.

The field marshal, hanged in effigy on Tahrir Square in a visual echo of Mubarak’s final days, seems intent on preserving the armed forces’ vast business interests built up over six decades of effective military rule. But there was no renewal of earlier heavy-handed efforts to clear the area.

“The army is ready to go back to barracks”

Parliamentary elections will start this coming Monday but they will take till January to complete. It is not clear how a referendum on military rule might be organized, nor what alternative might be proposed until June’s presidential vote.

Tantawi, 76 and defense minister under Mubarak for two decades, appeared hesitant, speaking in field uniform, as he told the 80 million Egyptians his army did not want power:

“The army is ready to go back to barracks immediately if the people wish that through a popular referendum, if need be.”

Many of the protesters saw the suggestion of a referendum, vague in its content, as a ploy to split the nation:

“He is trying to say that, despite all these people in Tahrir, they don’t represent the public,” said 32-year-old Rasha, one of dozens huddled around a radio in the nearby Cafe Riche, a venerable Cairo landmark. “He wants to pull the rug from under them and take it to a public referendum.”

A military source said Tantawi’s referendum offer would come into play “if the people reject the field marshal’s speech,” but did not explain how the popular mood would be assessed.

“We can’t trust what he says. The ball has been in the military council’s court for months, and they didn’'t do anything," Ibtisam al-Hamalawy, 50, told AFP.

"Tantawi is Mubarak, copy pasted. He’s Mubarak in a military uniform,” said Ahmed Mamduh, an accountant.

Tantawi may calculate that most Egyptians, unsettled by dizzying change, do not share the young protesters’ appetite for breaking from the army’s familiar embrace just yet.

Losing track of what demands are

For many Egyptians, trapped in a daily battle to feed themselves and their families, the political demands of some of those they view as young idealists are hard to fathom:

“I have lost track of what the demands are,” said Mohammed Sayed, 32, a store clerk in central Cairo as the capital went about its normal business before the start of what protesters had hoped might be a “million man march” on Tuesday.

“If you talk to the people in Tahrir, they have no clue,” added Sayed. “I don’t know where the country is headed. I’m worried about my life.”

On the square, however, demonstrators believed the army’s reluctance to cede power could see an escalation, as activists tried to complete what some call an “unfinished revolution”:

“All they are doing now is forcing people to escalate,” said Mohammed, 23, a financial analyst. “They are leaving. There is no question about that.”

“This opens the door for instability.”

Using a computer analogy, protester Abdullah Galal said: “There are many viruses in the system. It needs to be cleaned out entirely. We want to delete, reformat and reinstall ... We need to change the regime like they did in Tunisia and Libya.”

There are many viruses in the system. It needs to be cleaned out entirely. We want to delete, reformat and reinstall ... We need to change the regime like they did in Tunisia and Libya

Abdullah Galal, a protester

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized political force, joined the talks, which also included presidential hopeful and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and the head of the liberal Wafd party Sayyed Badawi.

Possible presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei accused the security forces of carrying out a “massacre.”

“Tear gas with nerve agent and live ammunition being used against civilians in Tahrir,” the ex-U.N. nuclear watchdog chief said in a message posted on Twitter. “A massacre is taking place.”

The Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party had said it would not join Tuesday’s protest over its “desire not to pull people towards fresh bloody confrontations with the parties that are seeking more tension.”

Transfer of power

Several politicians, including ElBaradei, have urged the military to review its plans for the transfer of power to civilians, by organizing a presidential election before the parliamentary polls which are due to begin next Monday and last several months.

The Muslim Brotherhood, although highly critical of the military rulers, opposes any postponement of the legislative vote, feeling it is in a strong position.

The military is also under international pressure to halt the violence, including from the United States.

The United States, which gives Egypt’s military $1.3 billion a year in aid, called for an end to the “deplorable” violence in Egypt and said elections there must go forward.

“We are deeply concerned about the violence. The violence is deplorable. We call on all sides to exercise restraint,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon urged the military council to “guarantee” civil liberties and deplored the deaths in the clashes.

The unrest has knocked Egypt’s markets. The benchmark share index EGX30 has fallen 11 percent since Thursday, hitting its lowest level since March 2009. The Egyptian pound fell to its weakest against the dollar since January 2005.

Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak’s fall, while sectarian clashes, labor unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralyzed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability.

(Additional writing by Abeer Tayel)

Tear gas with nerve agent and live ammunition being used against civilians in Tahrir. A massacre is taking place

Presidential hopeful Mohammed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter