CAIRO — Egypt on Friday appeared on the cusp of a protracted battle for control of the country’s once-promising revolution, with military rulers and protesters staging rival demonstrations and showing preferences for different prime ministers.
“The republic of Tahrir,” as some pundits call the iconic square in downtown Cairo, held an informal election in which thousands of protesters “voted” for Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, 69, to steer the country from an abyss just three days before scheduled parliamentary polls.
About six miles away, a thousands-strong crowd of pro-military demonstrators rallied behind the powerful generals after the appointment of Kamal el Ganzouri — a 77-year-old former premier who served under the deposed President Hosni Mubarak — as the official interim prime minister.
The rifts between the pro- and anti-military camps, along with additional fractures within each of the movements, threaten to derail Egypt’s path to democracy and could lead to more internecine bloodshed, analysts and activists warned. A fresh provocation came with the council’s selection of the elderly former-regime luminary Ganzouri to address the revolutionaries’ grievances.
His surprise pick only cemented the protesters’ view of the council as tone deaf and incapable of meaningful reform.
“Today we’re much more lucid about what’s wrong with this country: it’s military rule,” said the acclaimed Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, who’s currently shooting a feature film about the uprising. “A taboo has been broken. Before, no one could criticize the military.”
In an acknowledgment of the instability, the council announced Friday that each stage of the staggered parliamentary elections would now have two days of voting to allow for better security. But with downtown Cairo paralyzed by protests and clashes erupting anew in Alexandria, the second-largest city, it was anyone’s guess whether elections would take place at all, let alone polls that could be considered representative and legitimate.
To further complicate matters, Egypt’s best-organized political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, was in a bind. The influential Islamist group quietly dispatched its young members to join the Tahrir protesters but officially backed the military council’s plan to hold elections as scheduled and to hand over power after presidential elections in mid-2012.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is poised for big returns if the polls go on, though the group’s revolutionary credentials have taken a severe hit amid criticism that it sold out long-term reform goals by siding with the generals for its own immediate electoral interests.
“If we vote, in a way you’re supporting the council, but if you don’t vote, you leave the Brotherhood to eat the whole cake,” lamented Osama el Hatil, 38, a civil engineer among the Tahrir protesters. “I haven’t yet decided if I’m going to vote.”
Ibrahim al Houdaiby, a Tahrir activist and ex-Brotherhood member whose family boasts two former senior leaders, said it was “wise” of the group to steer clear of the latest uprising lest Egypt’s secular elites – not to mention Western powers – see the revolt as Islamist in nature.
However, he said, the Brotherhood stumbled badly in its attempts to explain its stance in a way that didn’t burn bridges.
“They lack the political imagination to articulate a position that avoids conflict on the street, but shows a presence in the square,” Houdaiby said. “They’re portraying themselves as worse than they are.”
The Obama administration issued a statement that called for the military council to transfer power to civilian authority "as soon as possible." But the U.S. call — timed, White House officials said, to be released at the beginning of the business day in Cairo — was hardly noticed in Tahrir.
"The council's staying in power or leaving is our internal issue and business, and America has no right to interfere," said Islam Othman, 29, a tour guide. "We didn't demand for Obama to leave because of the Wall Street protests or the Palestinian situation."
Tahrir Square itself was relatively calm, if surging with political activism. With concrete barricades installed to seal protesters off from the headquarters of the hated Interior Ministry not far away, there was none of the pitched fighting that for the past week had sent clouds of tear gas over the square. The mood was lighter, even as protesters continued their chants of, "the people want the fall of the field marshal," referring to the chief of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Hundreds staged a sit-in outside the Cabinet building, vowing a fight if Tantawi’s pick for prime minister tried to enter the building.
“Our battle now will be between the people in Tahrir Square and those outside of it, with the council on the side,” said Waleed Rashed, 28, a founder of the liberal April 6 Youth Movement, as he marched to the square with dozens of young Egyptians who sported casts and eye patches from deadly clashes with security forces earlier this week.
A week of nearly incessant battles between riot police who tried to clear the square and protesters who refused to go left at least 38 of the demonstrators dead and some 2,700 wounded, according to the health ministry. The military council issued a rare apology for the deaths on Thursday, then riled emotions the next day with Ganzouri’s appointment.
“These generals say that Tahrir Square doesn’t represent all of Egypt’s 80 million,” Rashed said. “That 1 million enough was enough for them to remove Mubarak, but now it’s not enough for them to take us seriously?”
Ganzouri’s appointment drew many first-time protesters to Tahrir on Friday, including a strong showing of middle- and upper-class families who said they’d initially opposed the latest uprising as disruptive, but were so outraged at returning to even figurehead rule by a onetime Mubarak crony that they’d changed their minds.
“We’d rather bring back Ramses II,” cracked Hatil, the engineer, taking aim not just at Ganzouri’s age, but at the entire ossified system that returned him to public office.
At the much smaller pro-military rally in the Cairo district of Abbasiya, news reports said, demonstrators tweaked the most famous revolutionary slogan to take aim at their foes in the square.
“The people want the fall of Tahrir,” they chanted.
Incensed at news coverage they consider too sympathetic to the protesters, thugs in the crowd roughed up several foreign and Egyptian journalists at the event, according to firsthand accounts posted on Twitter.
Adam Skaria, a 21-year-old student and avid supporter of the military council, said he wanted to attend the pro-military rally, but his filial duty won out and he instead accompanied his revolutionary mother to Tahrir Square. On their walk home, the two debated the merits of the uprising as they crossed a bridge over the Nile.
Mona Said, an art gallery owner who described Ganzory’s selection as “an insult to the people,” rolled her eyes at her son’s opposing views, but praised him for his willingness to at least check out the square for himself.
“I was actually against this new uprising, too. It was time to go to work, to rebuild,” she said. “But Ganzori? Really? I came now because this is it. We’re not going to see another January with no change.”
Skaria, her son, worried aloud whether Egypt could hold together if “a bunch of fragmented political parties” replaced the military’s six-decade hold on the country’s government. Still, he conceded, the voices in Tahrir were important.
“When you have that many people asking for the same thing,” he said, “you should listen.”
(Contributing to this story were special correspondent Mohannad Sabry in Cairo and Steven Thomma in Washington.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.