Uneasy calm decends on Egypt's Tahrir Square
Protesters and soldiers in Egypt observed a truce Thursday after five days of violent protests against military rule in the capital that saw 39 people killed. The army says parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned.
REUTERS - Egyptian riot police and protesters observed a truce on Thursday after violence that has killed 39 people in five days and the army said parliamentary elections would start on time next week.
Demonstrations by thousands of Egyptians furious at the military leadership’s slow transfer of power to civilian rule have led to violent clashes with police, in scenes similar to the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February.
Protesters have vowed not to leave Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, which has once again become the cradle of public protest in the most populous Arab country, until army rule ends.
"The people demand the execution of the marshal," crowds chanted, referring to army chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years.
In a communique, protesters called a million-man march on "the Friday of the last chance" to back demands for an immediate transfer to civilian rule via a national salvation government.
The demonstrations appear to have polarised Egyptians, many of whom worry that unrest will prolong economic stagnation. In new blows to confidence, the Egyptian pound weakened to more than 6 to the dollar for the first time since January 2005, and Standard & Poor’s cut Egypt’s credit rating.
The agency cut Egypt’s long-term, foreign- and local-currency sovereign credit ratings to B+ from BB-, saying a "weak political and economic profile" had worsened further.
Egypt’s ruling army council said it was doing all it could to prevent more violence. In a statement, it apologised, offered condolences and compensation to families of the dead, and promised a swift investigation into who was behind the unrest.
No election delay
A ruling council member, General Mamdouh Shaheen, told a news conference the parliamentary vote, whose first stage is due to begin on Monday, would go ahead on time. "We will not delay elections. This is the final word," he said.
Another council member, Major-General Mokhtar al-Mullah, took a swipe at the demonstrators. "If we look at those in Tahrir, regardless of their number, they do not represent the Egyptian people, but we must respect their opinion," he said.
Mullah said the army hoped to form a new government before Monday to replace Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s cabinet, which resigned during this week’s violence without giving a reason.
Demonstrators in Tahrir said the truce had taken hold from midnight. Cranes hauled concrete barriers, later reinforced with barbed wire, across streets leading to the nearby Interior Ministry, flashpoint for much of the recent violence. Protesters linked arms in human chains to prevent further clashes with security forces guarding the Interior Ministry.
"We have created a space separating us from the police. We are standing here to make sure no one violates it," said Mahmoud Adly, 42, part of a human cordon four people deep. Some demonstrators began sweeping the square and collecting rubbish. "We want to show people we aren’t here only for clashes, we are also cleaning the place," said Osama Moawad, 23.
The protests in Cairo and elsewhere pose the gravest challenge to Egypt’s army rulers since they took over from Mubarak, overthrown on Feb. 11 after an 18-day uprising.
The United States and European nations, alarmed at the violence of the past few days, have urged Egypt to proceed with what has been billed as its first free vote in decades.
Lack of trust
The army and the Muslim Brotherhood, which expects to do well in the election, say it must go ahead, but many protesters do not trust the military to oversee a clean vote. Some scorn the Brotherhood for its focus on gaining seats in parliament.
In Tahrir, two groups were chanting against other, one saying, "Muslim Brotherhood, we don’t want you in the square," and another responding in a unity call, "One hand, one hand."
The military council originally promised to return to barracks within six months, but then set a timetable for elections and drawing up a new constitution that would have left it in power until late next year or early 2013.
Tantawi pledged this week to hold a presidential vote in June that could pave the way for a transfer to civilian rule, but the demonstrators, angered by army attempts to shield itself legally from future civilian control, are unconvinced.
"The protesters of Tahrir Square announce their absolute rejection of ... Tantawi’s speech and stress they have been humiliated that the regime moved to offer solution only after martyrs fell," the protesters’ communique said.
Before the truce, protesters had fought running battles with security forces around the Interior Ministry. The bloody chaos there contrasted with normal life in streets nearby.