Crisis intensifies as Egypt's government resigns

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 21, 2011 

CAIRO — Egypt's civilian Cabinet resigned Monday to protest the military's harsh crackdown on demonstrators as an uprising against the ruling military council swelled into a third day of running battles in downtown Cairo.

Analysts openly debated whether the military council could survive the rising tide of protest, which bore striking resemblance to the 18 days of violence that led to the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. But they were also uncertain about what could come next in a country where the military has been the dominant political force for six decades.

The turmoil comes just days before crucial parliamentary elections are set to begin Monday, the first since Mubarak was toppled from office. The council has insisted there will be no delay of the parliamentary vote, even as its support crumbles, security frays and many protesters now pledge to boycott rather than cast a ballot under military rule. State television said late Monday that the council hadn’t accepted the Cabinet's resignation and was looking for a new prime minister.

"This is a confirmation that the supreme council has failed in managing the transitional period," said Hani Shukrallah, an Egyptian commentator and editor of the English-language Ahram Online website. "This is not a sign, it's a confirmation, of their inability and lack of experience in running a state."

Tens of thousands of demonstrators continued to hold onto positions in Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square early Tuesday, despite repeated efforts by security forces to drive them out. Protest leaders called for a "million man march" Tuesday to show their defiance of the military council.

Demonstrators demanded the dismissal of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the military council's head. "The people demand the fall of the field marshal!" protesters chanted.

For its part, the council called for "dialogue" and "study" in a statement issued early Tuesday, but it gave little indication that it was considering steps likely to calm demonstrators' anger after days of choking through tear gas and nursing wounds from birdshot. Protesters have sought a firm timetable for the military to hand over the country to civilian rulers, but the council has made no such gesture.

"The supreme council is acting exactly like the Mubarak government," said Muhammed Radwan, an Egyptian activist who was detained earlier this year in Syria and was released after the caretaker government's mediation. "They're giving concessions because of the pressure that built up against them, and they never expected it. We won't accept any of their concessions. We will not negotiate with them anymore."

Steven A. Cook, an Egypt expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the military "clearly has miscalculated" and appears to be looking to a new formula, such as a so-called national salvation government or a consultative council, to manage the nation's transition. The longer protesters remain in the square, willing to confront the security forces, however, the greater the likelihood that the generals will have to cede authority, he said.

"If they get anywhere near a million," Cook said of Tuesday's protest, "it's unclear how the SCAF can continue." SCAF is the acronym for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Anger at the council has been building for months. While demonstrators earlier this year credited the military with standing with them, the supreme council's actions after Mubarak resigned have left a growing sense that little in fact has changed.

An emergency law that allowed the military to arrest and try civilians in military courts remains in effect, and the military's initial pledge that it would surrender authority to civilians by September has slipped, with no word yet on when presidential elections would be held.

The military also has been accused of running down protesters in military vehicles, torturing and abusing people it's detained, showing reluctance to enact political reforms, censoring the media, and maintaining secrecy throughout the transitional period. The military plans to stay in power until after elections in 2013, under the current plan.

Perhaps the council's biggest misstep was floating an unsolicited set of guidelines for the drafting of a new constitution. The document would give the council extraordinary powers over the process, including budget control and the right to disband the drafting assembly and appoint a new one if it failed to meet a deadline.

That was the issue that brought protesters to Tahrir Square on Friday in one of the largest outpourings of dissent since Mubarak's ouster. But just as in the final days of Mubarak's three decades in power, the ceiling of demands shot up in response to the rising death toll as the military attacked demonstrators Saturday. Nothing short of Tantawi's departure appeared enough to bring calm to the capital.

With no clear indication of what kind of interim rulers would replace the generals should the council hand over authority, the United States appeared powerless to influence events. The Obama administration, which openly pushed for Mubarak's departure, has been less public in its criticism of the military council, whose go-slow approach was seen as the best hope for maintaining stability.

"As this process moves forward and as the Egyptian people shape their future, the United States continues to believe ... that these tragic events, rather, should not stand in the way of elections and a continued transition to democracy," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Monday.

For the third day straight, thousands of protesters, mostly young men, battled security forces in the narrow side streets around Tahrir Square. Waves of tear gas enveloped the area, causing people to faint or run for cover.

At least 33 protesters have died in the violence, and the number of wounded is 1,700, according to the Health Ministry.

Youssef Abu Bakr, 25, a doctor at one of the half-dozen field hospitals that have been set up in the square to treat the injured, said at least 130 injured protesters had been seen there Monday and that two people had died.

He said security forces had attacked the aid station, burning its supplies and beating the medical staff.

Chilling video footage of the weekend's clashes also shocked the Egyptian public, which overwhelmingly supports and trusts the military, according to opinion polls. The military is made up of conscripts, and many Egyptians draw a distinction between the ruling brass and the rank-and-file soldiers.

Footage of those troops firing tear gas and rubber bullets, abusing motionless bodies, dragging protesters by the hair and torching tents appears to have chipped away at the security forces' popularity.

Demonstrations also continued in Alexandria, Suez and other big cities as a growing number of Egyptians called on the council to step aside and allow the formation of a civilian interim authority.

"I was here all through the January revolution, and this is the same brutality and aggression by the police and the army," said Alaa Abdalla, a doctor at a field hospital with shrapnel wounds to his face and chest.

But reining in the military will be far more difficult than removing Mubarak from office.

The military has been Egypt's most powerful institution for the past 60 years, boasting a vast arsenal, a broad financial portfolio, and a self-image that it is the state incarnate.

Egypt's army is exponentially more popular than Mubarak was, and even longtime dissident groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most influential Islamist group and best-organized political force, has appeared reluctant to confront the generals on their post-Mubarak record of heavy-handed security tactics and slow progress on political reforms.

On Monday, the group issued an unusually harsh statement that said the military council is solely responsible for the bloodshed.

The Brotherhood statement called the behavior of the security forces "a series of crimes" and demanded investigations into the civilian deaths. The group said anyone who thinks such conduct is still acceptable is "deluded" and should beware: "The people who produced the January revolution are able to reproduce it."

To many protesters,however, the Brotherhood’s actions don’t match its tough talk.

The group’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is poised for a strong showing in elections scheduled to begin Monday, suspended some of its campaigning, but remained opposed to any delay of the vote. A later statement from the party also announced it would not participate in any further “sit-in or protest that may lead to more confrontations and congestion,” meaning Tuesday’s big rally might lack the huge crowds Islamists can muster.

The Brotherhood paid for its waffling Monday when a senior figure, Mohamed Beltagi, was kicked out of the square by protesters when he showed up in an attempt to express solidarity. Once popular with the Tahrir set, he was jeered and escorted from the scene by his assistants.

“The only explanation for the rejection of Dr. Beltagi’s presence in Tahrir Square is that the youth are angry because of the acts of the police and army, and the fact that several political powers did not join the strike,” said Haitham Abdel Moneim, a campaign aide to the politician.

(Sabry is a special correspondent. Mark Seibel and Steven Thomma contributed from Washington.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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