Egypt's opposition fights itself as army tightens control

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 14, 2011 

CAIRO — Three days after Hosni Mubarak's resignation, Egypt's political opposition was bitterly divided over its next moves as the army expanded its near-total control over the country with no overt signs that it's included anti-government protesters in its decision-making.

A major meeting of opposition leaders and protesters on Monday quickly devolved into arguments and diatribes, underscoring how difficult it will be for the diverse, leaderless revolutionary movement to coalesce around a political platform before elections that Egypt's military caretakers have pledged to hold.

While one set of opposition figures battled itself, a group of seven young, middle-class democracy activists said that they'd met with senior members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The protesters said the generals voiced their "sincere intention to preserve the gains of the revolution."

But the army, which Friday took power from Mubarak and since has issued only brief statements of its plans for the transition to a democratically elected government, made no mention of the meeting in its only statement of the day — a call for an end to growing labor protests.

The army has met some of the key demands of the protesters who ousted Mubarak. It's dissolved his rubber-stamp parliament and suspended the flawed constitution. Many Egyptians consider the military the country's most credible public institution after it remained neutral during the 18-day popular uprising and refused to fire on protesters.

But the military leadership — which includes former members of the Mubarak regime and is headed by his defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi — so far has emphasized stability over transparency.

Two army major-generals told the protesters they met Sunday — including Wael Ghonim, the 30-year-old Google executive who was held in secret detention and since has become the best known face of the uprising — that they'd appointed a committee of people "known for integrity and honor" to draft constitutional amendments.

In a Facebook post, Ghonim said the amendments would be voted on in a referendum in two months and that he took the military at its word, noting that "for the first time we are sitting with an Egyptian official who listens more than talks."

Others, however, expressed worry at the army's statement Sunday that it would run the country "for six months or until parliamentary and presidential elections are held," which seemed almost purposefully vague.

The army Monday accused labor protesters of "disturbing and disrupting" the country with their demands for better salaries and called on them to return to their jobs. In Cairo, a protest of about 200 workers outside the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions devolved into window smashing and shoving.

The army's moves so far were criticized at Monday's raucous meeting of opposition members, but participants failed to agree on any next steps and said they'd reconvene Tuesday.

"The statement by the military today was a real threat," said Abdel Khalek Farouq, a member of the National Association for Change, an opposition umbrella group. "The old guard is still in power and they are strong. . . . Authority is tempting, and they might stay in power."

The two-hour gathering at the offices of the Democratic Front party in a middle-class section of western Cairo was one of several such meetings that have been held by various opposition groupings over the past three days. It was called to nominate committees to open negotiations with the military — which the military hasn't explicitly asked for — but instead it demonstrated Egypt's polyglot opposition scene at its most disjointed and chaotic.

The popular uprising that occupied downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square, beat back pro-Mubarak gangs and transfixed the world for nearly three weeks is at best only tangentially affiliated with Egypt's formal opposition, which is made up of establishment figures and never seriously challenged Mubarak's grip on power.

The opposition parties have stepped in to negotiate on behalf of the uprising, which never appointed a leader.

In the meeting, the difference between the two populations was obvious, with the younger, fresher-faced protesters wearing Palestinian-inspired keffiyehs and looking bored while the older opposition figures in suits and ties bickered about committees.

Several dozen participants couldn't agree from the start on the size or composition of the committees, and a request for nominees ballooned to more than 340 names. After 45 minutes, more than half the room was standing up to ask a question, with many people shouting over each other, and the chairmen asked television cameras to be turned off.

"This is a closed meeting," one said.

Several attendees said that the chairmen — including Mohamed al Beltagi, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest formal opposition group — appeared to disregard complaints that the group included a disproportionately high number of people from Cairo and very few from the provinces.

"It's a mess. What happened in there was a rape of the revolution," said Alber Saber Zaki, a 26-year-old who slept much of the past three weeks in Tahrir Square. He learned about the meeting through a friend, but left halfway through.

"The people here are just elites," he said. "They don't represent the popular revolt."

That rift is perhaps not surprising. The protest movement was largely organized via Facebook and other social media by middle-class Egyptians, while the less privileged masses formed the vast majority of people in Tahrir Square and other protest sites.

The labor movement, which is expected to defy the military and return to striking Tuesday, also has little in common with people such as Ghonim, and their demands for better pay and working conditions weren't addressed by Mubarak's resignation.

"The meeting last night was to try to break us apart," Ahmed Salah, a founder of the April 6 youth movement that helped to organize the recent protests, said of the meeting between the army officials and Ghonim's group.

Some worried that if elections were held in six months, the same opposition figures who contested and lost past elections — or members of a reconstituted National Democratic Party, Mubarak's party — would rise again and the protest movement would fail to consolidate the gains of the revolution.

"The opposition is always divided," Saleh said. "It's part of the old system that includes the regime. It's the way Egypt has been the last four decades — corrupt to the core."

It didn't take long before some of the younger faces in the crowd grew frustrated and left. The cramped, low-ceilinged meeting room must have felt a long way from the freewheeling idealism of Tahrir Square.

After an hour, one man in his 30s stood up from the back of the room to leave. He turned to the young man seated behind him and said, "See you at the next revolution."

(McClatchy special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this article.)

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