x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Elections take spark out of Tahrir Square protests

For now elections claim attention as critics say demonstrations are prolonging instability in Egypt and hurting the poor.

Election officials in Cairo count ballots on Wednesday after Egypt held its first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's regime ended.
Election officials in Cairo count ballots on Wednesday after Egypt held its first parliamentary elections since Hosni Mubarak's regime ended.

CAIRO // Egyptian demonstrators who helped topple Hosni Mubarak vowed yesterday to stay in Tahrir Square until the army gives up power, even though Egypt's election has overshadowed their protests.

Clashes between protesters and police led to the death of 42 people last week, mostly in the streets around Tahrir, and more than 100 people were injured by petrol bombs, clubs, stones and buckshot on Tuesday night when unidentified men went on a rampage.

"We want the military council to leave," said Heidi Essam, a 21-year-old law student from the town of Mansoura.

"We're not leaving Tahrir even if we have to stay for months until we get a transitional government."

Egyptians took huge pride in the uprising in which millions took to the streets to end Mr Mubarak's rule, and many credit youthful activists for opening a route to democracy.

But some now take a jaundiced view of the protesters who have returned to Tahrir Square in frustration at the slow pace of change. Critics say the protesters have been trying to prolong turmoil, which has hurt the livelihoods of poor Egyptians.

During the early protests, hundreds of thousands thronged the square, but yesterday the crowd numbered no more than 2,000.

A parliamentary poll, which drew a big turnout in its first round on Monday and Tuesday, has offered a new avenue for political expression, in which elected parties may take up the struggle to push the generals who replaced Mr Mubarak back to barracks.

Many camped out in Tahrir boycotted the election, saying it was illegitimate and badly timed after this month's bloodshed. Others planned to vote, but wondered whether it was worthwhile.

"I will vote, but I'm not convinced of these elections," said Hany Mamdouh, a 20-year-old engineering student.

He said many Egyptians confused the protesters' opposition to the military council with opposition to the army itself.

"People don't understand that when we say we want the council to leave, we mean it should resume its role of protecting the country," he said in frustration.

Ms Essam questioned whether the new parliament, which ought to emerge after a six-week election process, would have real authority.

"The problem is that with the council around, there are no powers for these people. It's all superficial, the council restricts them. It appoints national salvation governments with no powers," Ms Essam said.

The protesters in Tahrir have demanded the formation of a civilian national salvation government to replace army rule immediately.

The generals refused to step aside, but last week they asked Kamal Al Ganzouri, 78, who was a premier under Mr Mubarak, to form a "national salvation government". One of them has said the new assembly would have no right to fire an army-appointed cabinet.

The protesters have called a rally in Tahrir for Friday to commemorate those killed last week, mostly in battles with riot police and military police guarding the interior ministry.

"We will not abandon the rights of the martyrs," read a banner in the square, among the tents of protesters that were drenched by rain earlier in the week.

Apart from the 42 dead, 2,000 people were wounded in the violence in Cairo and elsewhere. Many protesters suffered from the tear gas that filled the streets. Others were hit by rubber bullets and pellets, many in the eyes, human-rights groups say.

The interior ministry received a seven-tonne shipment of tear gas from a US supplier on Monday and will get another 14 tonnes within a week, a customs source said.

Police did not appear to be involved in Tuesday night's clashes, which Ms Essam said had begun after men wearing orange security uniforms had erected a tent in Tahrir and tried to eject street vendors who had set up shop in the area.

"Until now we have no idea if they were real security people or not," Ms Essam said.

Another brawl broke out yesterday when some protesters tried to eject a clothing salesman from the square.

"How else am I going to feed my children?" screamed the vendor at protesters crowding him. "I live on three pennies a day. If I leave here, I won't find food for them."

Widespread poverty and unemployment in Egypt, a fifth of whose 82 million people survive on less than US$1 a day, was one of the triggers of the uprising against Mr Mubarak.

Ahmed Afifi, 31, a caricature artist, said he had returned to Tahrir 12 days ago because the government had failed to deliver on a promise to pay compensation for injuries he had received in the revolt.

Some Tahrir protesters believe street power is the only way to counter the Mubarak-era generals still in power.

Many youth activists have also struggled to build fledgling political parties. Some suspended campaigning this month to return to Tahrir when protests against army rule flared again.

For voters tired of disorder, that has left a gap.

"I wanted to vote for the youth, but no one is organised enough. That's why I voted for the Muslim Brotherhood," said Sayed Ismail, 38, who works in a Cairo garage.

"I just want some organisation. Enough chaos."