CAIRO // Pressure is growing on a member of the president's ruling party who urged police to shoot protesters demanding political and economic reform. The National Democratic Party representative, Hassan Nash'at el-Qassas, said in parliament on Sunday "I don't know why the interior ministry is so lenient with those who break the law ... instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them; they deserve it."
His comments have caused outrage and the political fallout has continued to escalate. The opposition are holding the ruling NDP directly responsible, while others are calling for Mr el-Qassas to be put on trial and dismissed from the parliament. Scores of people protested outside Egypt's parliament on Tuesday over the comments. "You low Qassas, how are you going to face God," chanted the protesters, some of them holding banners in Arabic and English reading "Shoot US".
While Mr el-Qassas tried to retract his comments, the parliamentary speaker asked for the recordings of the session to investigate what he had said. Sunday's meeting of defence, national security and human rights committees was being held to discuss two protests earlier this month that were violently broken up by the police, action that led to domestic and international condemnation. Amnesty International on Monday condemned el-Qassas's remarks. "These outrageous comments are a clear incitement to excessive force and potentially unlawful killing of protesters," the organisation said in a statement.
"Such a statement must be retracted immediately, to avoid giving carte blanche to security forces already known for their record of abuse as well as to avoid encouraging further abuse against protesters who are peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly." More than 100 people have been arrested and dozens injured in a violent crackdown on recent protests in Egypt. Egypt, living under emergency laws for almost three decades, rarely witnesses massive protests. But in previous demonstrations against the Iraq War and Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, police have beat, detained, and to a lesser extent, fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of protesters.
The interior ministry issued a statement on Wednesday trying to explain its stance on dealing with protests. It said that police could use necessary force if it was the only suitable means to disperse gatherings or protests after issuing warnings if national security was in danger or for self-defence. Such fallout comes at a tense time in Egypt. Its ageing president, Hosni Mubarak, is recuperating at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for more than three weeks since he had his gallbladder and a growth on his intestine removed in Germany last month.
Mr Mubarak, who will turn 82 on May 4, has been ruling Egypt since 1981. Unlike his predecessors, he never appointed a vice president. Now, more than ever, there is rife speculation about his future and pressure that he should appoint a deputy. "Vice President ... Finally," said the front-page headline of the opposition daily al-Dostor yesterday. "As Mubarak enters his 29th year in power, hopefully he's thinking about appointing a vice president," wrote, the newspaper's editor Ibrahim Eissa. "With all our differences with President Mubarak, he is a national sincere Egyptian leader and old warrior, which are all characteristics that will make his responsibility towards his country come before his thinking about himself, family and even his health."
There has been mounting speculation and concern that Mr Mubarak's youngest son, Gamal, 46, is being groomed to succeed his father. Neither of the Mubaraks have announced yet if they will run in the presidential elections in 2011. Other commentators, some of whom are close to the regime, have been urging the president lately to amend some articles in the constitution to ensure that the upcoming elections will be more competitive and transparent.
Previous elections, both legislative and presidential, were marred by vote rigging and violence. "Since Mubarak came to power 28 years ago, all the important decisions came as a surprise to us," said the prominent former publisher of Egypt's largest circulating independent daily and democracy activist Hisham Kassem. "Mubarak surprised us five years ago by announcing the first multi-candidate presidential elections, he also surprised us in 2004 with the cabinet reshuffle that brought the current government," he added.
"We have no concrete information or inside information that Mubarak would appoint a vice president this time around," added Mr Kassem. firstname.lastname@example.org