Saturday, Jun 22, 2024

Riots Rock Cairo

Nine months after protests in Cairo's central Tahrir Square forced the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the protesters are back. This time, they say that they are determined to complete the transfer of power to the people, which they thought they had achieved in February. The protesters now believe that the real power in Egypt lies with Mubarak's former colleagues, the top officers of the Egyptian military. They were the ones who forced Mubarak to step down, and who have been ruling in his place, behind the scenes. They have used their power to supervise Egypt's transition to democracy and are slowing it down. They are now being accused by the protesters of further entrenching themselves and positioning themselves to dominate any new Egyptian government that emerges. The protesters who took to the streets to depose Mubarak earlier this year, both Islamic fundamentalists and secular liberals, joined together over the weekend to demand that the generals give up their power and get out of the way of Egyptian democracy.

When Mubarak first stepped down, the military council promised to turn over power to a new civilian government this past September. But then the military leaders decided that Egypt wasn’t ready, and pushed off the elections. The latest schedule does not call for the military to turn over power until 2013, following new parliamentary elections, the drafting of a new constitution, and finally, new presidential elections.


When the schedule was first announced, there was grumbling by various political factions which had hopes of gaining power earlier. But at the time, the competing factions were more concerned about each other than the Egyptian military.


Then last week, the council of Egyptian generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, drafted new guidelines for the Egyptian constitution which would make the military the power behind the new government, with ultimate authority over budget, legislative and internal affairs, and give the council of generals power to override the civilian authority.


Upon reading the new guidelines, both the Islamic radicals and the pro-democracy liberals saw them as a threat, fearing that they would continue to be subservient to the generals, no matter when elections were held, or their outcome.


United once again by a common enemy, the secular and Islamic factions renewed their old alliance that overthrew Mubarak, in order to do battle with the military’s Supreme Council, and took to the streets.


The members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces responded to the protests by agreeing to sit down with the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and four other parties Tuesday to work out a change in the transition schedule. They agreed to advance president elections to June of 2012, after which the military would give up its oversight power.


However, some Egyptian political parties boycotted the Tuesday meeting, and it was unclear whether they and the protesters in Tahrir Square would agree to the new deal. Many have been demanding that the military council give up its political power immediately.




The protests in Tahrir Square to date have been smaller, by an order of magnitude, than the huge outpouring of Egyptian public opposition to Mubarak’s rule which drew participants from all walks of Egyptian life. The problem is that the media coverage of the two episodes has been roughly the same, giving the false impression that the current protests represent the same level of public opposition to the authority of the Egyptian military as there was against Mubarak.


In fact, there is every reason to believe that vast majority of the Egyptian public still supports the military as a bulwark of the nation’s stability. The current opposition to the military is centered among a relatively small number of political activists, and particularly the Islamic extremists of the Muslim Brotherhood, who see the generals as an obstacle standing in the way of their achieving absolute control over the new Egyptian government, and turning Egypt into an Islamic state.


The initial generals reacted to the protests by sending in the hated riot police, in their black uniforms, whom Mubarak also used in trying to squelch the protests against him. That further enraged the protesters, and prompted more political groups to join in the demonstrations. As their protests grew, so did the violence with which the police used to try to break them up. On the first day of protests, Shabbos, there were hundreds of injuries, but no deaths reported. By the third day of the protests, Monday, the Health Ministry announced that the death toll among the protesters had risen to at least 33. Another 1,700 were believed to have been injured in the protests, including at least 80 members of the security forces. News pictures of the protests showed dead bodies heaped on top of a pile of garbage in Tahrir Square.


By Monday, the protests had spread to other parts of the country, including the coastal city of Alexandria, the city of Suez east of Cairo, the coastal city of el-Arish in the Sinai Peninsula and Assiut in southern Egypt.




In February, Egypt’s military leaders were hailed as heroes when they announced that they would not open fire on the anti-Mubarak demonstrators. This was a key turning point and led to Mubarak agreeing to give up power.


Since then, the Supreme Council has overseen the transition in Egypt to civilian rule which has taken a lot longer than first promised. Originally, new elections were supposed to be held this past September. Now the timetable for the full transition of power may take another two years. That transition has included trials of thousands of civilians in military courts for crimes committed by the Mubarak regime, and expanded the use of an emergency law that gives the government sweeping powers to detain people.


The delay in the handover by the military to civilian rule, and the insistence by the generals upon maintaining control over the kind of government it leads to has led some Egyptians to worry that in deposing Mubarak they had only traded one autocratic regime for another. Many of the protesters now say that they consider the Supreme Council to be as evil as Mubarak was. They do not believe that when a new civilian government has been chosen, the military leaders will voluntarily step aside and relinquish their power.




However, since Mubarak’s overthrow, the interim military government has played a crucial role in stabilizing Egypt, largely maintaining its relations with the US and Egypt’s traditional stabilizing role in the region. While there have been some difficult moments, the interim government has abided by the Camp David peace treaty signed with Israel more than 30 years ago, despite calls from Muslim extremist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to abandon the peace and re-establish a state of war.


When a terrorist attack on Israel launched from inside Egyptian territory eventually led to a firefight with Israeli troops and the death of some Egyptian soldiers, riots broke out at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, which the military government stepped in and quelled, after some delay. Eventually, the tensions between Israel and Egypt over that episode were resolved, and relations between the two countries were restored, along with Egypt’s release of a young Israeli-American citizen who had been arrested and held for spying.


The interim Egyptian government also continued to enforce some of the restriction on items allowed through the Egyptian border crossing into Gaza, while turning a blind eye to the network of smuggling tunnels there run by Hamas. The Egyptians also played a positive role in halting the renewal of rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel, and facilitated the prisoner swap which led to the release of Gilad Shalit.




The leaders of the Supreme Council are not seen as friends of Israel, but they do understand that maintaining the peace with Israel and preventing another war in Gaza are both in Egypt’s best interests. Many of the senior Egyptian military leaders received much of their training in the US, and recognize the importance to Egypt of maintaining cordial relations with the United States. They also see the Muslim Brotherhood and other, even more radical Islamic groups, as a threat to the stability of Egyptian society.


They see the riots at the Israeli embassy and reports of attacks earlier this year by radical Muslim on members of the Egyptian Christian community as examples of the chaos and violence which could ensue if the radical Muslims are allowed to capture control of the new government and turn Egypt into an Islamic state.


Egyptian military leaders see it as their responsibility to guide the transition to a new government in order to make sure that the Islamists do not seize total power. They see their mission as the ultimate guarantors of stability in Egypt, and a continuation of its moderate policies and influence in the region.


That was why the generals issued a series of guidelines for Egypt’s new constitution last week. The guidelines would give the military the ability to play such a role, rather than making the Egyptian army and its power totally subservient to any group which wins the upcoming series of Egyptian elections.




Until now, the secular liberal pro-democracy groups which had participated, along with the Islamic groups, in the protests which brought down Mubarak, were just as afraid of an Islamic takeover of Egypt as the military is. But the violence in Tahrir square over the weekend has obscured those fears, and temporarily reconstituted the informal alliance between the secularists and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, this time directed against the military instead of Mubarak.


As the protests continued, leaders across the Egyptian political spectrum coalesced around demands that the military leaders cede power to a new interim national unity government immediately, and accelerate the schedule for the transition to a new government, rather than sticking to the extended time frame established by the military.




After an emergency meeting Sunday night, Egypt’s military leaders issued a statement expressing “regret over what the events have led to.” But they rejected the demands that they step aside and turn over power to a new interim government. The statement added that the military council has no intention of “extending the transitional period and will not permit the process of democratic transition to be hindered in any way,” implying that they would stick to their established two year timetable.


The military leaders tried to head off the protests, by modifying some of the new guidelines and saying that they were only advisory in nature. But that did not satisfy the protest groups.


In revising the guidelines, the role of the armed forces was redefined as protecting the country and “preserving its unity,” rather than the original language which tasked the military with guarding Egypt’s “constitutional legitimacy,” which the protesters interpreted as granting the generals the authority to intervene at will in the affairs of the civilian government.


The revised guidelines would also place the Egyptian military explicitly under the control of the civilian government. “Like other state institutions,” the guidelines now say, the military should “abide by the constitutional and legislative regulations. The president of the republic is the supreme commander of the armed forces and the minister of defense is the general commander of the armed forces.”




In retrospect, the publication by the Supreme Council of a written set of ground rules for Egypt’s new constitution that would given them the explicit authority to intervene in civilian politics and give it independence from control by the new government’s elected leaders was a major strategic mistake.


It undermined the confidence of the liberal democrat groups in the good intentions of the military leaders. It touched off the violent protests, and threw the liberals into the arms of the Islamist, who now see a way to remove the military as the last obstacle standing between them and total control over Egypt.


Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood said that they now consider any form of ground rules put forward by the military, even in only an advisory basis, to be a manipulation of public opinion and an usurpation of civilian authority.


They also said that the military council could no longer be trusted to manage the transition of Egypt to a permanent new civilian government. They insisted that the council give up its power immediately and turn it over to a civilian, national unity government until elections are completed.




According to Egyptian political analyst Ezzedine Fishere, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and the radical Salafi Islamic groups opposes any restrictions or guidelines on the kind of government the new Egyptian constitution will call for.


“(Islamists) see that they will get a majority in parliament and hence want total freedom in choosing the constitutional committee and writing the constitution,” he said.


The Islamic factions are expected to win about 40 percent of the seats in the new parliament, with the Muslim Brotherhood gaining the largest bloc of seats.


According to Fishere, the violence in Tahrir square is a test of power between the military council and the Islamic groups as to how much power such an electoral victory would give the Muslims. “What is happening now is a showdown between the two factions … an on-the-ground confrontation with each party trying to enforce its will,” Fishere said.




The transitional national unity government now being proposed by the Islamic and liberal democrat groups would be led by veteran Egyptian diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. He was an apologist for Iran while he served as the former head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency. He took a hard line against Israel’s nuclear program, and was highly critical of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein in 2003.


In an interview over the weekend, ElBaradei said, “power is now in the hands of the military council, which is not qualified to run the country, and the government, which has no authority. For the next six months, we want to see the powers of the military council given completely to a civilian, national unity government, and the military goes back to just defending the borders.”


Given his pro-Iran, anti-Israel and anti-American actions while at the UN, it is not at all clear that ElBaradei would continue to maintain Egypt’s moderate role in the region as head of an interim government functioning independently of Egypt’s military leaders.




On Monday, the prime minister of the interim government, Essam Sharaf, and his entire cabinet, submitted their resignations . They issued a statement saying that they were accepting responsibility for the deaths of the demonstrators. However, the military council did not accept their resignations until Tuesday.


Before announcing its resignation, the cabinet issued a statement saying that elections would begin as scheduled on November 28, and continue in stages into March of next year. The cabinet also thanked the police for their “restraint,” in dealing with the protesters in Tahrir Square.


Predictably, the resignation failed to satisfy the demands of the protesters. They viewed the Sharaf government as a puppet regime, with the Egyptian military pulling all of its strings.


The crowds in Tahrir, which had grown to well over 10,000 after nightfall Monday, broke out into cheers with the news of the Cabinet’s resignation. But there was no sign that the protests would end until the military council hands over its power to a civilian government. Protesters continued to lay blame for the violence entirely on Field Marshal Tantawi and his fellow generals, demanding their ouster.




Egyptians and Western leaders had hoped that next week’s election would be a milestone in the country’s transition to democracy. Instead, the vote is in danger of being overshadowed by the standoff between the protesters and the military.


The protesters in Tahrir Square say that they fear that whoever wins the vote won’t matter as long as the generals remain in control behind the scenes. The military would be able to manipulate the new government as easily as they did Sharaf’s.


Many of the protesters were critical of the military council for failing to ban members of Mubarak’s ruling party from running in the election, raising suspicions that the military wants to see the new Egyptian government dominated by leaders of the old regime, whom they could easily control.


The military council issued a new edict over the weekend banning members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party who had been convicted of corruption from holding public office, which the protesters saw as too little, too late. They want a blanket prohibition against anyone who was associated with the previous government, whether they had been convicted of a crime or not.


Tahrir Square then braced for what a pro-democracy group known as the Revolutionary Youth Coalition promised would be a “million-man march” on Tuesday.




The violence in Tahrir Square first exploded on Shabbos, as thousands of protesters chanting for an end to military rule, battled the riot police who opened fire on them with tear gas, rubber bullets and bird shot.


The clashes began at when police tried to clear out a few hundred protesters who spent the night in the square after participating in a large but peaceful demonstration on Friday. That protest, which was organized by supporters of the Moslem Brotherhood, drew tens of thousands of people who called for a swift end to the rule of the military.


While beating on drums, the protesters chanted, “Police and thugs and thieves,” and “The people demand the ouster of the field marshal,” referring to Tantawi.


Ahmed Tamer, 37, a protester from the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra said,.“We came because of the field marshal and the military government. They don’t want to turn over power to civilians. The army still has us by the neck and they don’t want to let go.”


Ahmed Hani, a protester who was wounded in the forehead by a rubber bullet fired by the police, said, “We have a single demand: The marshal must step down and be replaced by a civilian council. The violence showed us that Mubarak is still in power.”




By nightfall, the protesters had won the battle for the square. In the process, more than 200 people had been injured seriously enough to require hospitalization.


Around 6 p.m., the police counterattacked and retook the square. They set fire to at least a dozen of the tents left behind by the protesters, along with blankets and banners. “This is what they (the military) will do if they rule the country,” one protester screamed while running away from the riot police, who tried to hit the protesters with clubs.


Then the tide of the battle turned again, as first the Muslim Brotherhood and then the liberal April 6th Youth Movement called in reinforcements. Also joining the battle on the side of the protesters were a group of veteran soccer fans who had considerable experience battling police during the riots which frequently break out at the matches.


Hundreds of the protesters regrouped at the southern entrance to the square next to the Egyptian museum, and began marching back into the square waving the red, white and black Egyptian flags and chanting. Then both sides began pelting each other with rocks.


By 7 p.m. the police had retreated from the square again and continued battling the protesters on the side streets.


The clashes spread through downtown Cairo and lasted into the night. One battle between the protesters and riot police on the street leading the Interior Ministry continued past midnight, during which a police vehicle drove through a cloud of tear gas and into a crowd of protesters.




The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement protesting the police attacks on those camping out in the square.


“(This is) reminiscent of the practices of the defunct regime’s interior ministry.”


The April 6th Youth Movement also issued a statement condemning the use of force against peaceful protesters and demanding that the interior minister “leave office immediately.”


The battles continued in the square Sunday between about 5,000 protesters and the riot police. Many of the protesters chanted “freedom, freedom” as they threw rocks at the police and a white cloud of tear gas hung in the air. This time there were more injuries and some fatalities.


Sounds of gunfire could be heard. A constant stream of protesters injured by rubber bullets or overcome by tear gas was brought to makeshift medical clinics set up on the sidewalks.


At one point, one of the field clinics was hit by a barrage of tear gas canisters, forcing the medical staff and the wounded to flee.


By the end of the day, the square and the streets immediately surrounding it were covered with rocks, shattered glass and trash. The windows of buildings on the main campus of the American University in Cairo, overlooking the square, were shattered and all the nearby stores were closed.


The violence continued Monday, with protesters accusing the riot police of starting to shoot at them with live ammunition, accounting for the sharp increase in reported deaths compared to the first two days of rioting. Otherwise, the scene in the streets around Tahrir Square looked the same, with young men hurling stones at the police, and the police trying to disperse them with canisters of tear gas, which the protesters would occasionally pick up and throw back.


The crowds which returned to Tahrir Square on Tuesday were larger than in previous days, but still far short of the “One Million Man March” which organizers had predicted.


Meanwhile, the leaders of the Egyptian military were negotiating various options with the protesting groups and making concessions on their timetable for transition, seeking to find a way to restore order without abandoning the country to the Islamic extremism of the Muslim Brotherhood.


The Washington Post and the Associated Press contributed to this story.




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