Egyptian military ruler moves up presidential vote

Wednesday, November 23, 2011
Protesters run for cover Tuesday during clashes with the Egyptian riot police near Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egypt’s civilian Cabinet has offered to resign after three days of violent clashes in many cities between demonstrators and security forces, but the action failed to satisfy protesters deeply frustrated with the new military rulers. (Khalil Hamra ~ Associated Press)

CAIRO -- Egypt's military leader promised to speed the transition to civilian rule, saying Tuesday that presidential elections will be held by the end of June 2012. But the major concession was immediately rejected by tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, who responded with chants of "Leave, leave now!"

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi vowed that landmark parliamentary elections will start on schedule on Monday, the first vote since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in an uprising nine months ago. And he said the military was prepared to hold a referendum on immediately transferring power to a civilian authority if people demand it.

Tantawi said he has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's civilian government and politicians who attended a five-hour crisis meeting with the ruling generals said the military intended to replace Sharaf's cabinet with a "national salvation" government. It was not clear who might head the new Cabinet, but names of a couple presidential hopefuls were mentioned.

"Our demands are clear," said Khaled El-Sayed, a protester from the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary election. "We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority." He also demanded that the commander of the military police and the interior minister, who is in charge of the police, be tried for the "horrific crimes" of the past few days, when 29 people were killed in clashes, most of them in Cairo.

The standoff culminated four days of clashes and demonstrations around the country that have constituted the most sustained challenge so far to nine months of military rule. It plunges the country deeper into a crisis that may only hamper the democratic transition the protesters are fighting for.

In Tahrir Square, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, with jubilation over the large turnout mixed with the seething anger directed at the military. On Tuesday, the protesters had called for a million people to turn out and drew a massive crowd of tens of thousands.

The crowds carried an open wooden coffin with a body of a slain protester wrapped in white and held a funeral in the middle of the square.

A stuffed military uniform was hung from a central light pole with a cardboard sign on its neck saying "Execute the field marshal," a reference to Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years. People cheered when the effigy was hung and state television showed some hitting it with sticks or shoes.

Men in the square opened a corridor in the middle of the crowds and formed a human chain to keep it open, giving easy access to motorcycles and ambulances ferrying the wounded to several field hospitals in the square.

Sweet smells of popcorn and cotton candy mingled with tear gas and burning garbage.

As night fell on the square, thousands streamed in over a bridge across the Nile River. Men and women carrying blankets and boxes of supplies chanted: "Down with the field marshal."

The latest round of unrest began Saturday when security forces violently evicted a few hundred protesters who camped out in Tahrir. The perceived use of excessive force angered activists, who began to flock to the square. A joint army and police attempt to clear the square on Sunday evening failed, leaving protesters more determined to dig in there.

The clashes played out amid charges that the military was trying to cling on to power after an elected parliament is seated and a new president elected. The military recently proposed that a "guardianship" role for itself be enshrined in the next constitution and that it would enjoy immunity from any civilian oversight.

Further confusing the political situation, the military-backed civilian government on Monday submitted a mass resignation in response to the turmoil.

In a televised address to the nation, Tantawi did not mention a specific date for the transfer of power, although the presidential election has long been considered the final step in the process. The military has previously floated the end of next year or early 2013 as the date for the presidential vote.

"The armed forces, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has no desire to rule and puts the country's interests above all. It is ready to hand over responsibility immediately and return to its original duty of defending the country if the people want that and through a public referendum if it is necessary," he said.

In his brief address, Tantawi sought to cast the military as the nation's foremost patriots and angrily denounced what he called attempts to taint its reputation. He didn't utter a single word about the four days of protests in Tahrir Square.

But he hinted at conspiratorial plots behind the protests, much like Mubarak did in his final days.

He spoke of forces "who are working in the dark to incite sedition and drive a wedge between the people and the Armed Forces or between different segments of the Egyptian people."

The crowds in Tahrir immediately rejected Tantawi's proposals with chants of "erhal," or leave.

"We are not leaving, he leaves," chanted the protesters. "The people want to bring down the field marshal," they shouted.

A youth group that played a key role in the anti-Mubarak uprising said it decided to remain in the square until the military handed over power to a civilian presidential council to run the country's affairs. Beside a representative of the military, the council should include pro-reform leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, said the April 6 group.

"The military council has failed to manage the transitional period, and the generals' hands are tainted by the blood of the nation's youth and have been collaborating with the counterrevolution," the group said in a statement.

Others in the square said the referendum was just a ploy to divide people.

Another protester said the army is making the same mistake as Mubarak did.

"They hear the demands but respond when it's too late," said Mustafa Abdel-Hamid, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to Tahrir even though his movement has not endorsed the protests over the past four days.

The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies are expected to dominate the next parliament, while the liberal groups behind Mubarak's ouster appear poised to lag behind, lacking unity and a cohesive vision. The Brotherhood is staying out of the latest protests, arguing that it did not want the nation to be dragged into a "bloody confrontation." But secular activists say the Muslim fundamentalist group is more keen on grabbing power than ensure the future of the nation.

Aboul-Ela Madi, Mohammed Selim el-Awa, two politicians who attended a five-hour crisis meeting with the military rulers earlier on Tuesday, said the generals wanted to hand over power to a civilian government by July 1, a date that was not mentioned by Tantawi.

They said the military intended to replace Sharaf's cabinet with a "national salvation" government.

ElBaradei's name has been mentioned by protesters as a suitable replacement for Prime Minister Sharaf, who has come under intense criticism for the perceived inefficiency of his civilian government and for being beholden to the ruling generals.

Madi and Al-Awa were among 12 political party representatives and presidential hopefuls who attended the meeting with the military council. Not all parties were represented -- none of the youthful, liberal groups behind the uprising attended.

ElBaradei also was absent. His office said he did not attend the crisis meeting but was in touch with the military. ElBaradei prefers to continue to act as the link between the military council and the protesters until the crisis is resolved, his office said

But the military has been backed into a difficult corner. Protesters are demanding it surrender the reins of power -- or at least set a firm date in the very near future for doing so soon. Without that, few civilian political leaders are likely to join a new government for fear of being tainted as facades for the generals, as many consider the current Cabinet.

Madi and el-Awa also said the military agreed to release all protesters detained since Saturday and to put on trial police and army officers responsible for protesters' deaths.

The military's concession came less than a week before the first parliamentary election since Mubarak's ouster. The elections start on Nov. 28 and are staggered through to March next year.

The political uncertainty and prospect of continued violence dealt a punishing blow to an already battered economy. Egypt's benchmark index plunged more than 5 percent, the third straight day of declines. Banks closed early and many workplaces sent employees home ahead of schedule for fear of a deterioration in security.

The military and police stayed out of Tahrir on Tuesday to try to lower the temperature. But the nearby Interior Ministry was the focus of most violence near Tahrir on Tuesday. The ministry, which is in charge of the police, said protesters were continuing attempts to storm the ministry.

It said some protesters climbed over buildings near the ministry and lobbed firebombs into the compound. Others, it said, set fire on cars outside the ministry and opened fire on policemen, wounding five. The police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and the protesters responded with rocks and firebombs.

The army set up barricades on streets leading to Interior Ministry and soldiers stood behind them. Riot police were in front in lines, and youths approached and throw stones. They fired back with tear gas.

The ministry denied charges that police were using live ammunition or pellets against the protesters.

But Human Rights Watch said autopsies conducted on 22 of the bodies of protesters at the Zeinhom morgue in Cairo confirmed that they had been shot with live bullets and three others died from asphyxiation from tear gas, according to morgue officials.

Clashes and protests also raged in the northern Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and the southern city of Assiut.

Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy, Ben Hubbard and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.

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