Egypt’s ruling generals: Elections will go on despite violence

CAIRO _ Egypt’s beleaguered military council said Thursday that it would press ahead with a parliamentary election Monday, though it acknowledged “many violations” by security forces, whose efforts to clear out protesters backfired and triggered a wider uprising just days before the landmark vote.

“We will not delay elections. This is the final word,” Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces told a news conference in Cairo.

Several Egyptian politicians had called for a two-week delay in order to restore calm to the capital and other restive cities after clashes between protesters and security forces that left at least 38 people dead and some 2,700 wounded since last weekend.

Thousands of protesters who remained in downtown Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s uprising against Mubarak and an iconic space to other Arab revolutionaries, vowed to continue with plans for a rally Friday to demand that the military rulers cede power immediately to a civilian transitional authority. Many of them said they’d boycott an election overseen by generals who either allowed security forces to attack or were powerless to stop them.

“All those people on the square vowed not to vote, and I will not vote,” said Galal Mahmoud, an engineer. “What elections are they talking about with all this bloodshed and violation?”

The military council repeatedly has refused to either step aside or to delay the vote, sticking to plans for a handover in mid-2012 after accelerated presidential elections. Abdelmoez Ibrahim, head of Egypt’s electoral commission, told reporters that timely elections were the “lifeline that will get us through this phase.”

The council also pledged to form a new caretaker government _ which presumably still would fall under military authority _ by Monday, when Egyptians will vote in the first election since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February.

Late Thursday, news reports said, the council appointed a new interim prime minister: Kamal el Ganzoury, 78, who served as Egypt’s premier from 1996 to 1999. Ganzoury was a relatively popular prime minister who was unceremoniously pushed out by Mubarak in a move that garnered Ganzoury some sympathy.

It was unclear whether Ganzoury would be accepted by the young protesters who are at the vanguard of the uprising. On social networking sites, they were quick to point out his age, his shared hometown with Mubarak and what some said was a record of rejecting dissent.

“Ganzoury gained public pity when he was sacrificed by the Mubarak government, but pity is one thing and the national salvation government demanded by the people is another,” said Emad Gad, a political analyst at the Ahram Center research institute in Cairo.

While concentrated in urban centers, this week’s violence was fierce enough to imperil the vote as questions rose over how the overstretched army and reviled police force could secure polling places. The military council apologized for the deaths, said it would investigate reports that live ammunition was used against civilians, and ended the news conference with a moment of silence for victims of the bloodshed.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces presents its regrets and deep apologies for the deaths of martyrs from among Egypt’s loyal sons during the recent events in Tahrir Square,” members of the council said in a rare mea culpa that was posted online.

Protesters rejected the apology as hollow, saying that the best way to respect the dead would be for the council to delay the elections and to step down after what they described as months of backsliding on revolutionary goals. The military council has tried some 12,000 civilians in military court _ more than Mubarak did in three decades _ and sought to quell dissent through arrests, intimidation, media censorship and smear campaigns against human rights groups, activists said.

“If the supreme council cared for any of those who were killed or injured, or any of those protesting in Tahrir Square, they’d delay elections for two weeks and start sorting out the mess they caused because of their incompetency and carelessness,” said Wael Mohammed, a university student.

Instead of assuaging fears with Thursday’s overtures, protesters said, the council only caused more alarm with a new order that some analysts criticized as opening the door for vigilantism on Election Day.

The supreme council’s communique No. 85 called on “honorable citizens” to be on high alert at protest scenes and “to immediately arrest any suspected individuals without harming them” and to turn them over to authorities. The council also encouraged ordinary Egyptians to arrest anyone on rooftops overlooking protest sites and to help the military move the injured to hospitals.

By late Thursday, a tenuous peace held in Tahrir Square. Plumes of tear gas had subsided and the steady wail of ambulances had quieted.

The military erected an 8-foot-high barricade of cement blocks and barbed wire to cordon off Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which leads to the Interior Ministry and was the scene of the deadliest battles of the past week. Volunteers, many of them Islamists, stood several rows deep as a human buffer between protesters and the nearby riot police.

“It took (the ruling generals) seven days to put an end to one confrontation on one street, so how am I supposed to believe they’ll secure polling stations all over the country?” asked Mohammed, the student.

But the scene was still tense, and several reports emerged of both foreign and Egyptian journalists being attacked in the square. A female French journalist was stripped of her clothing and endured a 45-minute sexual assault by men and boys in the square, she told news outlets. Other foreign reporters were roughed up, intimidated or had equipment stolen, they announced on Twitter.

Rumors spread that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group and best-organized political force, had cut a deal with the council to help restore order in the square. The group is favored for an electoral sweep and vehemently opposed a delay in the vote. The Brotherhood was an important force in the uprising that brought down Mubarak but lost many non-Islamist fellow revolutionaries with its decision to sit out this week’s uprising.

In online statements, the Brotherhood denied any deal with the council.

Friday is expected to be a test of the rejuvenated uprising that this time has the military council’s downfall in its sights. If the protesters can sustain huge demonstrations, activists and analysts said, they might still have a shot at forcing a vote delay and more concessions from the council.

“I think we’ll see another wave of public anger against the military tomorrow,” Gad, the analyst, said. “The square is already boiling.”

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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