Egyptian military sets dates for elections, and the reaction is dismay

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 27, 2011 

CAIRO — Egypt's ruling military council on Tuesday announced a long-awaited schedule for selecting a new civilian government that foresees parliament holding its first session on March 17, 2012, more than a year after the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak.

But while many in Egypt are eager to see an end to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' rule by decree, the immediate reaction to the announcement was dismay — a sign of how badly tarnished the military's reputation has become in the seven months it has ruled the country.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the powerful and conservative Muslim Brotherhood Movement, said the announcement "shocked" the country's political groups because it contained many changes in election law "that (were) never subject to discussion."

The party's statement criticized the military council for failing to set a specific date for presidential elections, not providing a specific timetable for writing a new constitution, and not setting "a specific date for the army to head back to the barracks."

A collection of liberal political groups that had been at the forefront of the demonstrations that led to Mubarak's fall offered similar complaints, saying the military council had essentially refused "to hand over the country to a civilian government that reflects the will and vision of the January revolution."

The statement called for nationwide demonstrations Friday to protest the election announcement. The statement was signed by the National Front for Justice and Democracy, Youth for Justice and Freedom, the Labor Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and others.

Under the election decree, the 199th issued by the military government since it assumed power Feb. 11, elections to pick a parliament will take place in three staggered balloting sessions to be held between Nov. 28 and Jan. 10 — timed so that the country's limited election and security organizations won't be overwhelmed by the task.

Balloting for members of a senate-like upper council would be held in similarly staggered balloting between Jan. 29 and March 11.

The decree set the size of the new parliament at 498 members, all of whom would be selected by election. Two-thirds of the seats would be reserved for candidates representing political parties; the remaining third would be reserved for candidates without party affiliations. Half of Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament would be farmers and members of trade unions, the decree said.

A provision in Mubarak-era election law that set aside 64 seats for women was scrapped.

Under the decree, candidates seeking election to parliament's lower house would begin registering Oct. 12.

The dismay over the military council's election decree marked yet another moment in Egypt's march toward civilian government when its military caretakers have angered people who before Mubarak resigned had viewed the army as an ally and protector.

Since those days, however, the military has been criticized for continuing to try civilians in military courts, moving slowly to reform the police, and moving only reluctantly to prosecute Mubarak-era officials for a wide variety of crimes, from embezzlement to human rights violations.

Last week, the military announced that the hated emergency law, which during Mubarak's rule was used to jail political dissidents on the flimsiest of charges, will remain in effect until June — well after the date now set for the new parliament to assume office.

The statement Tuesday from the liberal political groups summed up the frustrations that many now express toward the military:

"We demand an end to the emergency law, laws criminalizing strikes and protests, the fulfillment of all demands by workers striking, a stop to military trials, setting a schedule for handing over Egypt to a civilian government that reflects the will of the revolution, replacing the current election laws, and taking measures that would prevent any attempt to forge elections by members of the former regime."

Anger at the military had become particularly vocal in the past two days after Sunday's testimony by Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the supreme council, at Mubarak's trial on charges that the former president ordered Egypt's security forces to use deadly force against the protesters calling for his ouster.

The judge, who earlier had ordered an end to television broadcasts of the trial, had banned news outlets from reporting on Tantawi's appearance. But that ban was largely ignored and a verbatim transcript of Tantawi's testimony appeared on social networking websites, including Twitter and Facebook.

According to the transcript, Judge Ahmed Refaat posed 30 questions to Tantawi during his testimony. Most of Tantawi's answers included the phrases "I don't know," "I have no information about this," and "This is not my specialty."

Egyptian activists swarmed social media with criticism of Tantawi's testimony, while new Facebook pages dedicated to rejecting military rule drew hundreds of members. One page mocking Tantawi carried the name "Tantawi, Mubarak is innocent, my mom killed the protesters."

Less than 48 hours after his testimony, Tantawi appeared on national TV walking through downtown Cairo in civilian clothes and without bodyguards, an apparent attempt to contain the whirlpool of anger. But the attempt backfired.

"Marshal Tantawi's appearance in plain clothes is an apparent attempt to gain public support," said Ayman Nour, the head of the Ghad (Tomorrow) political party who was once jailed after he ran against Mubarak for the presidency.

"The military council took a stance contradicting that of the national front and the demands of the Egyptian revolution," Nour said. "It is not a matter of wearing civil clothing; it's about having civil principles and accepting others."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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New Egypt? 7,000 civilians jailed since Mubarak fell

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