Frustrated Egyptians come out in force

Egypt is frayed, bloody and slipping toward a new revolt.

The clashes that erupted for the second day in a row Sunday between police and protesters are the most volatile challenge in months to the nation’s military leaders. The anger glimpsed through the tear gas and on the bruised faces of demonstrators marked a dangerous chasm between the Egyptian people and the generals who have refused to relinquish power to a civilian government.

What is unfolding in the streets of Cairo, Suez and the coastal city of Alexandria is the compounded anger over the unrealized promise of a revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February but has yet to steer the country toward a new democracy. Five people have been killed across the nation, including three Sunday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and more than 1,000 have been injured since violence broke out on Saturday.

Security forces and military police, swinging batons, firing birdshot and driving armored personnel carriers, stormed the square late Sunday afternoon, chasing out protesters and burning tents. The troops quickly retreated and growing ranks of demonstrators returned to the area, yelling epithets against the military as darkness fell. Protesters numbered as many as 20,000 before midnight.


“We are on the brink of danger. Those asking for the government to fall are asking for the state to fall,” Gen. Mohsen Fangary said in a TV interview.

But at times, the military appears in denial, as if the deepening discontent against it can be placated or ignored in the run-up to next week’s parliamentary elections.

The military is not ready to cede the country’s future to an array of political interests, including remnants of the old regime and the dominant Muslim Brotherhood. These forces mistrust one another but they — along with thousands of idle, angry young men — have banded against what they all regard as the larger enemy in the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

But political parties, especially Islamist groups, face a dilemma: They want to tap into the spirit of the protests but do not want violence to jeopardize the country’s first significant elections in decades. The Muslim Brotherhood did not endorse the demonstrations but condemned security forces for the bloody crackdown. The ultraconservative Gamaa al Islamiya group told its followers now is “not a suitable time” to take to the streets.

“I should be at work,” said Ashraf Hamed, a food vendor who joined Sunday’s rally in Tahrir Square. “But I suffered from life under Mubarak and I refuse to continue suffering and keep watching injustices being done to our revolution.”

Broken glass, stones and bullet casings littered the square as about 4,000 protesters gathered while riot police battled others on side streets and protected the nearby Interior Ministry. The April 6 Youth Movement and an ultraconservative Islamist presidential candidate announced their support of the protest, but the majority of the demonstrators appeared not to belong to political parties or activist groups.

“I was against the idea of a sit-in but when I saw the police brutality against demonstrators on TV yesterday I decided to come and join them,” said Adel Kassem, a university professor. “These people here are the real Egyptians, without any politicians or banners of Muslim Brotherhood or anyone else who has tried to hijack the revolution.”

The clashes began early Saturday when several hundred protesters attempted a sit-in after a huge anti-military rally on Friday. The violence resumed Sunday as military helicopters skimmed overhead and shops and businesses closed.

“Leave, leave just like Mubarak!” protesters chanted.

“Down with the field marshal!” yelled others, referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, leader of the armed forces.

The police and the military are “doing their best to hinder elections while at the same time falsely showing everyone that the revolution will bring change and democracy,” said Ali Shahin, a businessman. “But this is all fake. They want to show that the country is not ready for democracy so they make the changes they want.”

The military expanded martial law in September and has been intent on preventing activists from retaking Tahrir Square, which they occupied during the revolt against Mubarak. But the generals face the prospect of possibly provoking widespread bloodshed and unrest that could draw tens of thousands into the streets amid the political turmoil already surrounding the run-up to parliamentary elections on Nov. 28.

“Do not leave the square. This square will lead the way from now on,” Hazem Salah abu Ismail, the ultraconservative Islamist presidential candidate, told demonstrators. “Tomorrow the whole of Egypt will follow your lead.”

Egypt has stumbled from the so-called Arab Spring’s great inspiration to its lingering disappointment. The euphoric 18 days that led to Mubarak’s downfall have been clouded by divisions between secularists and Islamists and by the military, which has repeatedly delayed transition to civilian rule. The generals are reviled by activists but their wide support in the provinces allows them a tight grip on the nation.

The most recent violence was sparked by an attempt by the military to consolidate its power by enshrining a larger role for itself in a new constitution. Late Saturday, amid the rising protests, the generals amended the proposals in an effort to calm activists and the Muslim Brotherhood. That kind of appeasement worked in the past, but did little to contain the outrage of the last two days.

The nation is unlikely to find respite soon. The military announced that it would not postpone elections. The voting could trigger more bloodshed and is certain to exacerbate differences between liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, which could win at least 30% of the seats in parliament. Secularists and the military fear the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups are determined to press for a government deeply rooted in sharia, or Islamic law.

But, in the short term, the parliament will ultimately be accountable to the ruling military council. A full transfer of power to civilian control is not expected until a president is elected late next year or in 2013. This scenario is certain to lead to more protests even as Egypt struggles with a downward spiraling economy and a shrinking tourism industry.

This was on the minds of many in Tahrir Square. Like Kassem, the university professor, they mirrored the Egyptians who protested last winter — not politically driven, just fed up. Kassem stood Sunday amid scorched tires and the tang of tear gas not far from a makeshift hospital in a mosque and a few tents erected in the square’s central garden.

“Mubarak’s thieves headed by Tantawi stole our revolution, so did groups using religion,” he said. “The ruling system remains the same as it was under Mubarak, practicing the same stupidity as Mubarak’s men did.”