x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

General: Egypt is not Tahrir Square

Military rulers defend actions against protesters and vow that elections will proceed as planned on Monday.

Thousands of protesters continue to demand civilian rule in Tahrir Square.
Thousands of protesters continue to demand civilian rule in Tahrir Square.

CAIRO // Egypt's military rulers yesterday vowed that parliamentary elections would proceed as planned on Monday, despite tens of thousands of protesters demonstrating in Tahrir Square for the military to relinquish power.

Speaking at a news conference in Cairo, two members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) defended the military's performance and said Scaf would yield power once a new government was elected.

"Egypt is not Tahrir Square and it is not Mohammed Mahmoud Street," said Maj Gen Mukhtar El Mallah, identifying the street near the square where protesters and security forces have battled for six days. A truce prevailed yesterday for the first time, putting an end to the exchanges of tear gas and rocks that have left 39 dead and 2,000 injured since Saturday.

Maj Gen El Mallah later clarified that the young people in Tahrir were "patriots", but made clear that the military believed it was acting in accordance with the will of the majority of Egyptians.

The military would leave power either through a referendum vote or the democratic process, he said.

The decision to move ahead with elections could set the generals on a collision course with protesters over the next few days. While fighting had abated yesterday morning in the square and other locations around Egypt, there were plans today for a massive gathering in Tahrir Square entitled: "Friday of the Final Chance."

"The young people in Tahrir Square are not leaving until the people who committed brutality are put on trial and punished and the military cedes power to a national salvation government that can run the transition period in a much better way," said Omar Ashour, the director for Middle East studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, who has been in Cairo during the protests. "The anger on the front lines is very high and they are very determined to fight."

Protesters have already won some concessions from the military, including the commitment by Scaf to hold presidential elections in June 2012 and the resignation of the cabinet.

But the common call in the square has been for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to step down after nine months of what many protesters say has been a failed attempt to steer the country's transition.

Maj Gen El Mallah yesterday said that protests were allowed by the law, as long as they did not disrupt traffic, and he pleaded with Egyptians to focus on the elections.

"We should focus more on building the country," Maj Gen El Mallah said.

In a communique issued after the news conference, the military described the country as going through "critical times" and called upon citizens to prevent chaos. It also asked people to apprehend "suspicious" characters and hand them over to the authorities. Several foreigners have been arrested in recent days, including three American university students who were accused of throwing Molotov cocktails at the police. The Americans were released yesterday.

The prominent Egyptian-American writer Mona El Tahawy said yesterday that she had been arrested near Tahrir Square by security forces, who brutally interrogated and sexually assaulted her.

The elections on Monday were supposed to be the first step towards putting in place a government with a popular mandate and sending the military back to their barracks. But the protests have shown that the elections have lost some degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the most fervent activists.

"The elections are gibberish," said Abdelfattah Mohsen, 22, a recent graduate of engineering at Ain Shams University in Tahrir Square. "The problem is that the new parliament won't be able to do anything. They won't be able to confront the military. We aren't leaving until a new civilian government is in control."

The situation in Tahrir has undergone several transformations since November 18. It began as a protest by Islamists against the military's perceived attempts to enshrine greater powers for itself in a set of supra-constitutional principles that would guide the writing of the constitution by the new parliament.

A group of more than 200 people, said to be families of victims of the protests in January and February, slept in the square that Friday night, but were attacked the following morning by police trying to clear the area.

By Saturday afternoon, a battle was being waged between protesters and the security forces on Mohammed Mahmoud Street.

The number of people in the square grew rapidly after reports began spreading about deaths of protesters and images began circulating of alleged police misconduct, including officers dragging an unconscious or dead body through a pile of rubbish. By yesterday, many in the square said they would not leave until the military handed over power to a civilian government and accepted responsibility for what had happened over the previous six days.

Only a third of the country, including Cairo, Alexandria, Kafr El Sheikh, Damietta and the Red Sea governorates, will begin voting on Monday in the election for the lower house of parliament. One-third of the seats are individual candidates, with the remaining two-thirds filled by political parties that win a proportional amount of votes. The second and third phases of the first round of elections will finish in January. Then the same process will begin for the upper house of parliament, finishing in March.