x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Democracy activists pledge new Tahrir Square protests

The Muslim Brotherhood said last night it would take its protest of proposed constitutional guidelines to the square that became the focal point of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

CAIRO // Pro-democracy activists yesterday pledged mass demonstrations in Tahrir Square after Egypt's ruling generals refused to scrap controversial constitutional guidelines that would protect the military after a new government is elected.

As negotiations stalled, the Muslim Brotherhood said last night it would take its protest to the square that became the focal point of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

"Our leadership is considering the extent to which we should take to the streets to send a clear message to the government to get rid of the document," a spokesman for the Brotherhood, Jamal Himdan, said.

The Brotherhood and other critics say the draft constitutional principles enshrine the powers of the military at the expense of an elected government by removing civilian oversight over the army's budget and allowing its generals to appoint most of the politicians who will draft a new constitution.

They are angry the so-called "supra-constitutional" principles will be binding on the new administration, Egypt's first democratic government in decades, to be chosen in phased elections beginning this month.

Negotiations between government officials and party representatives continued late into last night, the prime minister of Egypt's unelected caretaker government, Essam Sharaf, said.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, took power at the height of the revolution and many protesters initially welcomed the ruling generals as national heroes for their pledge for a swift transition to civilian rule.

But 10 months later, the generals remain firmly in control.

Activists such as the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which expects a strong showing in the election for its Freedom and Justice Party, are growing wary of the military's role in a future democratic Egypt.

The military is now intent on preserving its privileged status and investments in property and business, built-up over the decades, analysts say.

"We've moved beyond giving Scaf the benefit of the doubt. They are clearly obstructionist in their aims," says Joshua Stacher, professor of Middle East and Egyptian politics at Kent State University in the United States.

"This is the latest in attempts to divide the political factions so they can marginalise the people they don't control."

Advocates of the supra-constitutional guidelines, some of whom are among Egypt's more liberal activists, say they are necessary to guarantee civil and religious rights in any new constitution if, as expected, Islamist groups win a majority in parliament.

But many are worried fresh protests could spark violence before the elections.

Several other rallies since February have erupted into clashes between demonstrators and the military. Many Egyptians say they no longer trust the police to secure their neighbourhoods and that elections are adding to the fear.

"Most Egyptians, they are still in shock from toppling Hosni," says Mohammed, a nightclub owner in Cairo. "They don't trust anyone right now, they are afraid of everything."

Mr Himdan says the Brotherhood understands worries over violence, and they do not want "to create enough of a security disturbance so that the government cancels elections" with their Friday protest.

But they will not back down. "We are completely against the idea that restrictions will be put on the will of the people," he said. "There will be no negotiations, and no compromise. Our stance is firm."

The staged elections for two houses of parliament begin with the first of three rounds for the lower house on November 28. The new government is due to be sworn in early next year.

The lower house will then appoint a committee to draft a new constitution.