x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Egypt PM pleads for two months of calm

Kamal El Ganzouri, Egypt's military-appointed prime minister, says ruling body is eager to relinquish power and establish civilian rule.

SUEZ // Egypt's military-appointed prime minister yesterday called for national dialogue to resolve the country's political crisis and pleaded for a two-month calm to restore security after weeks of protests and bloodshed.

Kamal El Ganzouri also told a news conference the ruling military, which took over from Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago, was eager to relinquish power and deliver the country to civilian rule, as demanded by some activists and those still protesting in the streets around Cairo's Tahrir Square.

But the stance of the Cairo activists is in stark contrast to many across Egypt who are taking part in ongoing staggered parliamentary elections.

As thousands of protesters on Wednesday demanded the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) abandon its plan to stay in power to at least June, 160 kilometres away in Suez, Wael Rezq proudly waved his stained purple finger in the air - proof he had voted in the parliamentary run-off elections earlier in the day.

"Everyone's vote is important if we want to the country to change," said Mr Rezq, a factory foreman in Suez who wore a pin declaring his loyalty to Freedom and Justice — the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, which looks set to capture about 40 per cent of the new parliament.

Many of the protesters in Cairo have pushed for a boycott of the elections - which end early next month - saying any vote under the Scaf's leadership is meaningless.

It's a sentiment Mr Rezq and others reject. "These protests are not necessary. We need the country to calm down," he said. "We need this all to stop for a little while and then we can start making more demands."

A few blocks away, Mohammed Suleiman sat outside his Suez Canal Pickle Shop, slicing a pile of cucumbers as he railed against the new demonstrations. "All these protests are just problems. It's holding up the country, not helping it," he said. "In our current situation. We need patience."

This lack of sympathy for the new wave of protests among Suez residents is revealing since the city was one of the cradles of the Egyptian revolution. Nobody can doubt the revolutionary credentials of Suez or its people.

On January 25, while huge crowds marched through Cairo, Suez turned violent almost immediately. Three people were killed in clashes with police. By the 28th, when the Cairo protesters established control of Tahrir Square, their Suez counterparts completely routed security forces and set fire to several police stations.

Scaf officials, in fending off the latest round of street protests in Cairo that have killed at least 15 civilians, have repeatedly said the protesters do not represent wider public opinion, pointing to high electoral participation levels as proof the silent majority of Egyptians trusts their vision.

In each of the two regional rounds of voting so far there has been an extremely high turnout.But the participation levels have been lower for the run-off votes, which took place in the majority of districts, the following week.

In Suez on Wednesday, a small handful of voters assembled outside two different polling stations at 8am when the doors opened. One of those voters, a woman wearing a niqab full-face veil who declined to give her name, said her reasons were simple. "We need the country to stabilise. God willing, this will produce that result. We need to rest," she said.

But by 11am, the number of soldiers standing outside the stations far outnumbered the voters.

One possible reason for this drop-off is voters losing interest once the run-offs produced an unpalatable two-candidate choice. This is a particularly likely possibility for secularist voters who have seen candidates from Islamist parties dominate the polls.

In Suez representatives of either the Muslim Brotherhood's party or the far more conservative Salafist Nour Party captured three of the four seats reserved for party list voting.

In the race for individual seats, only one of the four remaining candidates for two seats came from a secularist party. Similar scenarios are playing out across the country.

Government officials have blamed the ongoing protests on a combination of sour grapes by secular and liberal activists over their poll losses, and a sinister conspiracy to sabotage Egypt's democratic transition, for the lower turnout.

It is a strategy which activists claim is an invitation to vigilante violence against protesters and it may be gaining some traction in the world outside of Tahrir Square.

Mr Suleiman, the Suez pickle shop owner, characterised the protesters as borderline saboteurs. "It's like a form of terrorism against ourselves," he said.