Saturday, November 26, 2011

Military junta & protesters dig in for long standoff

New York Times
Egypt Military and Protesters Dig In for a Long Standoff

November 24, 2011

David Kirkpatrick

Egypt's interim military rulers and the masses of protesters demanding their exit dug in Thursday for a prolonged standoff as the generals vowed to forge ahead with parliamentary elections despite a week of violence that is certain to tarnish the vote.

State news organizations reported that at least one political party — the Social Democrats, perhaps the best established of the liberal parties founded in the burst of hope after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago — would boycott the elections as a sham intended to prop up military rule.

By day’s end on Thursday, the Muslim Brotherhood also appeared to distance itself from the military council. The powerful Islamist group stands to gain the most from early elections and for the moment had stepped to the sidelines of the protests.

As clashes with the security police stopped for the first time this week, the crowd in Tahrir Square grew larger on Thursday than the day before, reaching tens of thousands. A broad spectrum of civilian leaders — excluding the Brotherhood — joined calls for a “million man march” on Friday.

The generals were unmoved. “Egypt is not Tahrir Square,” Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah, a member of the military council, declared early Thursday at a news conference. The generals claimed an open-ended mandate to hold power long after Monday’s parliamentary vote. “We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd.

The declaration, after six days of violent confrontation in the capital and around the country, shifted the political struggle to a new and murkier phase.

Fulfilling a promise made in negotiations with political parties earlier in the week, the military pulled back the security forces who had battled protesters and constructed a concrete wall bisecting the street where most of the clashes had taken place.

The generals, meanwhile, issued an unusual apology for the deaths of at least 38 people during the week of unrest and the injuries of more than 2,000. But even as they hailed the dead as “martyrs,” the generals also appeared to justify killing them as criminals who had attacked the Interior Ministry. And they denied — despite the statements of many witnesses, doctors and even the health ministry — that security forces had fired live ammunition or birdshot in their clashes with protesters, further inflaming anger.

“The police are very committed to self-control, but I can’t give orders to anyone not to defend themselves,” General Mallah said.

Then, late in the day, the generals announced over the state news media that they would name a 77-year-old former Mubarak lieutenant, Kamel el-Ganzoury, as their new prime minister, though many Egyptians mocked him as “a dinosaur.”

The appointment of Mr. Ganzoury follows the resignation this week of the previous prime minister, in capitulation to street protesters’ demands. The last prime minister was a functionary serving the military council, and the demonstrators, as well as most civilian parties, are now calling for the council to hand over real authority to a successor.

But the council made clear in its news conference on Thursday that it was not ready to surrender any power, and the choice of Mr. Ganzoury appeared to show the generals’ preference for a prime minister who would serve in a subordinate role, as Mr. Ganzoury did under Mr. Mubarak. Several others also reportedly turned the post down.

The selection of Mr. Ganzoury may also have provoked the Muslim Brotherhood, the one major political force that had agreed to a deal with the military council for it to retain full power until early elections. As prime minister in the late 1990s, Mr. Ganzoury presided over the incarceration or torture of scores of Islamists who now lead the movement.

In a statement released shortly after Mr. Ganzoury’s name was floated, the Brotherhood’s new Freedom and Justice Party pointedly declared that the next prime minister “must enjoy general national consensus and popular acceptance and have to stand at one distance from all political forces.” The group said that its leaders had not met with the council on Thursday, meaning they had not been consulted.

The Brotherhood had already issued a statement appearing to back away from its previous embrace of an agreement with the military council for it to hold power until after an accelerated constitutional ratification and presidential vote by the end of June.

A Brotherhood spokesman had previously said it would not join the street protests demanding the immediate transfer of power because it had agreed with the council on a timetable that all should accept.

But the group was pilloried for appearing to trade its support to the council in exchange for holding elections on a favorable timetable, and it faced internal divisions on the issue as well.

The group responded Thursday in an extraordinarily defensive statement that it had declined to join the protests only because it feared its presence could provoke more violence, not because of a political calculus.

“Our decision has been misunderstood and misinterpreted by some,” the group said. “They harshly criticized and slandered the Muslim Brotherhood.”

It added, “Had we been out to secure our own interests and reap popularity on the political street, going down to Tahrir Square would have been just the way to do that. But we refrained from rash action,” calling the demonstrators “purely patriotic youths and sincere citizens.”

In the square, many argued Thursday that the military’s ability to end the violence at its discretion — a provision of its agreement with the Brotherhood — suggested that the generals might have deliberately tolerated it for days. “If they had done this the first day, there would not have been any martyrs or injuries,” said Mohamed Salem, 25, watching a crane erect the wall of cement blocks across the side street that had become the central battleground between protesters and the security police.

Although the military said that the security police were merely defending the Interior Ministry from attack, the fighting had always centered on that one block leading to the square, while other more direct routes to the ministry remained open, supporting the assertions of many protesters that the security forces were deliberately provoking the violence to destabilize the elections.

A flawed or disputed election, the argument runs, would undercut liberal hopes that the new Parliament could become an effective counterweight to the power of the ruling officers’ council during the rest of the transition.

But the protesters, emboldened by the end of the fighting, said they were as determined as ever to stay in the square until the military council and its chief, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, left power. “Oh, Field Marshal, Oh, Field Marshal, legitimacy comes from Tahrir,” they chanted.

With the flames of garbage fires lighted during the fighting the night before still smoldering in the morning, some said competition among candidates now seemed irrelevant to the more pressing struggle against the military. “Elections don’t matter for me anymore, because now there is blood,” said Samer Saad Ali, 37, an accountant who vowed to stay until Mr. Tantawi left power.

Then, at around 4:30 p.m., the same debate about the election suddenly broke out in clusters around the square. In each, a lone voice tried to convince those around him that it was time to go home, to focus on the vote, as others passed out fliers with a similar message nearby.

Though it appeared to be an organized campaign to empty the square, its true sponsor — some suggested the military council, others pointed at the Brotherhood or another conservative religious group — was not clear.

But in any case, the crowd only grew. “You can’t trust the Field Marshal with the square; how can you trust him with elections?” argued Adel Fawzy Tawfiq, 47, a butcher. Mr. Tantawi “is betting on the ‘silent majority,’ ” he added. “He never learned the lesson of Mubarak.”

Others, though, said they intended to stay to protest and turn out to vote, no matter how flawed the tally. “The Egyptian people, through their representatives, will be able to stand up to anyone,” said Reda Bassiouni, a 48-year-old lawyer As he walked the square, he held hands with his small son, whom he had brought along “to see the history,” he said.

*May el Sheik and Dina Salah Amer contributed reporting from Cairo and Alan Cowell contributed reporting from Paris.
*Photo courtesy of Khalil Hamra/Associated Press

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