As Crowds Swell in Cairo, Military Is in Crisis Talks
Published: November 23, 2011 (Issue # 1684)
KHALIL HAMRA / AP
An Egyptian medic treats a protester for the effects of tear gas during clashes with riot police in Cairo on Tuesday.
CAIRO — A swelling crowd of tens of thousands filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square Tuesday, answering the call for a million people to turn out and intensify pressure on Egypt’s military leaders to hand over power to a civilian government. The ruling military council held crisis talks with political parties across the spectrum to try to defuse growing cries for a “second revolution.”
The military head of state, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was expected to address the nation as protests in Cairo and other major cities carried on for a fourth day. Security forces stayed out of Tahrir itself to lower the temperature. But there were clashes on side streets leading to the square — the epicenter of the uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February.
The new wave of protests and violence around the country that began on Saturday has left 29 dead and has thrown Egypt’s politics into chaos less than a week before landmark parliamentary elections were to begin.
Staggered parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak’s ouster, are to begin on Monday and conclude in March.
“If the elections don’t happen, there could be a clash between the army and the people. That’s what we’re afraid of,” said protester Mustafa Abdel-Hamid. He said he wanted a clear timetable for the transfer of power.
“The army is making the same mistake as Mubarak. They hear the demands but respond when it’s too late,” said Abdel-Hamid, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to Tahrir even though his movement has not endorsed the protests over the past four days.
The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies are expected to dominate the next parliament, while the liberal groups behind Mubarak’s ouster appear poised to lag behind, lacking unity and a cohesive vision. The Brotherhood is staying out of the latest protests, arguing that it did not want the nation to be dragged into a “bloody confrontation.” But secular activists say the Muslim fundamentalist group is more keen on grabbing power than ensuring the future of the nation.
Tens of thousands of people were in Tahrir by nightfall and the crowd was growing steadily — the numbers typically peak at night after everyone gets off work. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, with jubilation over the large turnout mixed with the seething anger directed at the military.
The crowds carried an open wooden coffin with a body of a slain protester wrapped in white and held a funeral in the middle of the square.
A stuffed military uniform was hung from a central light pole with a cardboard sign on its neck saying “Execute the field marshal,” a reference to Tantawi, Mubarak’s defense minister of 20 years. People cheered when the effigy was hung and state television showed some hitting it with sticks.
Men in the square opened a corridor in the middle of the crowds and formed a human chain to keep it open, giving easy access to motorcycles and ambulances ferrying the wounded to several field hospitals in the square.
The latest round of unrest began Saturday when security forces violently evicted a few hundred protesters who camped out in Tahrir. The perceived use of excessive force angered activists, who began to flock to the square. A joint army and police attempt to clear the square on Sunday evening failed, leaving protesters more determined to dig in there.
The clashes played out amid charges that the military was trying to cling on to power after an elected parliament is seated and a new president elected. The military recently proposed that a “guardianship” role for itself be enshrined in the next constitution and that it would enjoy immunity from any civilian oversight.
Further confusing the political situation, the military-backed civilian government on Monday submitted a mass resignation in response to the turmoil.
In a sign it was struggling over how to respond to the fast-changing events, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — the military body that rules the country — still had not responded to the resignation offer by Tuesday. The council’s generals met Tuesday with leaders of all the various political factions, apparently trying to find a replacement government.