New York Times
Egypt’s Cabinet Offers to Resign as Protests Rage
Nov. 21, 2011
CAIRO — The cabinet offered its resignation on Monday to Egypt’s transitional military rulers as security forces carried out an increasingly lethal crackdown on three days of street protests, reviving the uncertainty about Egypt’s future that marked the earliest days of the Arab Spring.
Egypt’s military had been seen as the linchpin of the political transition after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.
It was the institution Egypt’s Islamists hoped would steer the country to early elections they were poised to dominate. At the same time, liberals regarded it as a hedge against Islamist power. And it was considered a partner the Obama administration hoped would secure American interests.
But the cabinet’s offer to resign, in a bow to the protesters’ demands, was the latest blow to the tenuous legitimacy of the ruling military council was slipping away, just a week before Egypt is scheduled to hold its first parliamentary elections since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster nine months ago.
Reeling from the swift collapse of the military’s authority, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, urged protesters to show restraint or risk delaying the elections. But other Islamists, more conservative and more moderate, joined Egypt’s secular parties in calling for a protest Tuesday — expected to be the largest yet — demanding that the military council hand power to a civilian authority.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did not respond to the cabinet’s offer to resign, but state television reported that the council was seeking a new prime minister. The culture minister, Emad Abu Ghazi, has already resigned in protest over the demonstrators’ brutal treatment at the hands of security forces.
Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the United States State Department, called the violence “deplorable” and urged that elections take place on schedule.
The escalating uncertainty came after a bloody third day of battles between the protesters who have reoccupied Tahrir Square at the center of the capital and the security forces massed around the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. The Health Ministry said at least 23 people had died, and several doctors treating patients at a field clinic and nearby hospital said several had been killed by live ammunition, contrary to denials by the Interior Ministry. More than 1,500 people have been seriously injured in the clashes, the Health Ministry said.
But the crowd in Tahrir Square — the iconic heart of the Arab Spring — continued to grow to tens of thousands Monday. Alarmed at the crackdown on unarmed civilians, a broad cross section of the political elite, from liberal groups to ultraconservative Islamists, pledged for the first time to join the demonstrators in the streets on Tuesday in a so-called million man march.
After a meeting on Monday of about two dozen political groups, several delivered a collective apology to the protesters for not joining them sooner and “for not providing them with a political cover for the past 72 hours,” as the liberal political leader Amr Hamzawy put it in a message on Twitter.
But though all the political leaders called for elections to begin on schedule next week, a growing number conceded privately that the violence was likely to force their delay — potentially adding the unrest. And even as the political leaders unified around the demands, new divisions emerged among them over how the military might begin to hand over power.
The Muslim Brotherhood was the only major political party that announced it would hold back from Tuesday’s demonstrations. It said in a statement that it did not want to be involved in a protest that might delay the elections and thus the transition to democracy.
In a statement on the Web site of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party, one of its leaders, Mohamed Beltagy, told protesters that “in sprite of my complete appreciation of the reasons for their rage,” they should “not be involved in an escalation that could lead to a case of chaos and damage” or “give a chance to those who seek to justify delaying a complete transition of power to an elected civilian power with full authority (parliament, government and president) so that we can continue on the path of our glorious revolution.”
Others argued that the group did not want to jeopardize its commanding lead in outreach and organizing, and at one point Monday angry protesters chased Mr. Beltagy out of the square.
The Muslim Brotherhood “are still behaving like elections are on. They still haven’t decided to side with the people and come to Tahrir,” said Israa Abdalla, 20, a pharmacist, explaining why she believed Mr. Beltagy had been justifiably ejected. “They just want a slice of the cake.” (More centrist Islamist parties and political leaders as well as the ultraconservative Salafis all pledged to join Tuesday’s demonstrations.)
Some liberal groups, led by the former diplomat and presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, called for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to give up power immediately to a civilian “government of national rescue.” Other liberals said they sought only the replacement of the current cabinet with a new civilian team with more power to make decisions independent of the council.
Mr. Hamzawy, the founder of a new liberal party and a parliamentary candidate well positioned for a seat from an upscale district of Cairo, said in a Twitter message that he still favored holding elections before picking a new national unity government that would continue to govern under the military council but replace the current prime minister, Essam Sharaf.
“I’m still convinced that elections are the way to transfer power and I changed my position along with others to demand Sharaf’s dismissal after yesterday’s statement,” he said.
In a statement late Monday night the council called for a meeting without political leaders as well as an investigation into the violence by its interim justice minister.
In a bid to mollify the protesters without conceding any power — a favorite tactic of the council — the ruling generals also promulgated a new law that could restrict the ability of members of Mr. Mubarak’s former ruling party to run for office. Such a law could play havoc with political parties, lists and coalitions in districts around the country, but the council said nothing further about its intentions.
Gen. Said Abbas, a member of the council, visited Tahrir Square on Monday for a brief news conference, saying the council respected the protesters’ right to peaceful demonstrations. He declared that the security forces had not initiated any violence but had only defended themselves, and he insisted — despite a sweep of the square Sunday evening by hundreds of soldiers and police officers in riot gear — that the security forces had not entered the square.
Asked about the reports of protesters injured by gunfire from security forces, he said the victims were “thugs,” not peaceful demonstrators. “There is an invisible hand in the square causing a rift between the army and the people,” he said.
As clashes continued along the avenue to the interior ministry, protesters spread word that security forces appeared to be using more live ammunition in addition to the usual tear gas, rubber bullets and bird shot. At a hospital near the square, three doctors said they had seen as many as ten patients with wounds from live bullet sustained at the protests, all of whom died.
All three doctors, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said administrators had told them to deny any evidence of bullet wounds.
Some marveled that the Egyptian public had once lionized the same generals commanding thee attacks for refusing to shoot unarmed civilians during the revolts that brought down Mr. Mubarak. “Thanking the army for not shooting us is like thanking your wife for not cheating on you,” said Mohamed Hamed, a 23 year old medical student.
Others worried about who might succeed the military council and its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, even as they chanted for his ouster.
“People don’t want military rule, and they won’t leave here until the field marshal goes too,” said Omar Tareq, 18, a university student from the province of Qalyoubeya. “But I don’t really know what happens if he does. Who will take hold of the country?”
*Liam Stack, Mayy el Sheikh and Dina Amer contributed reporting.