Fresh Cairo clashes despite pledges by Military on presidential elections
Published 23/11/2011 | 15:42
CAIRO police have clashed with anti-government protesters for a fifth day in the Egyptian capital as a rights group raised the overall death toll from the current unrest to 38.
Tens of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square have rejected a promise by Egypt's military ruler to speed up a presidential election to the first half of 2012.
They want Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to step down immediately in favour of an interim civilian council.
Today's street battles centred around the heavily fortified interior ministry, near the iconic square.
Egypt's military leadership was forced yesterday to make its first major concession, promising to surrender power by next summer in a desperate attempt to assuage the fury of an ever-swelling throng of protesters in central Cairo.
Faced with the greatest demonstration of people power since the popular revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February, the army's resolve finally began to waver.
For days, Egypt's generals attempted to crush the mounting challenge to their rule with force. But with close to 100,000 people massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square as night fell - by far the largest number since violence erupted in the city on Saturday - they abruptly changed tack.
After a day of crisis talks with party leaders from across the country's political spectrum, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the leader of Egypt's ruling military council, emerged for the first time since the unrest began with a firm pledge that the army would expedite the country's transition to civilian rule.
He promised that the process would be completed with full elections by the end of June and that the first of 12 parliamentary votes would go ahead as scheduled on Monday. He also signalled his willingness to hold a referendum on whether the army should surrender power immediately. Under the original military timetable, presidential elections might not have taken place until 2013.
Mr Tantawi insisted the package was evidence he and his fellow officers never wanted any- thing more than to guide the country to a democratic future.
"The armed forces, represented by their supreme council, do not aspire to govern and put the supreme interest of the country above all considerations," he said in a television address to the nation. But it was far from clear whether the offer would placate the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, who made no sign of their willingness to return home.
Many dismissed it as a stalling tactic, and said they would end their protest only if the army agreed to step down immediately. "We were fooled once when we thought we had got rid of dictatorship by getting rid of Mubarak," said Ali Hassan, a student. "We will not be fooled again. This is too little, too late."
But there was jubilation, too, in the square. Many sensed that the concessions were a sign of weakness and that, with additional pressure, the last vestiges of the army's power would crumble.
"On Friday, the military had a chance to respond to the people by making concessions and allowing a gradual transition, but they missed their chance," said Magdy Hussein, an opposition activist. "Now they have no choice but to hand over to a civilian council immediately. It is game over."
Throughout the day, there was evidence that the mood was hardening, with anger increasingly directed at Mr Tantawi himself. Protesters strung up his effigy above the square, a noose around its neck from which hung a sign that read: "Executed: the field marshal." It was a scene redolent of the 18 days of protest at the start of the year that culminated in the downfall of Mr Mubarak, who was repeatedly hanged in effigy on the same square.
The generals have appeared bewildered by the pace of events. On Monday, they rejected an offer from the civilian cabinet they appointed to run day-to-day affairs to resign. Yesterday, they changed their minds. The use of force, too, seems to largely have been abandoned. No attempts have been made to clear Tahrir Square since the early hours of Monday. Such an operation would only have served to enrage the growing crowds still further.
But violence continued in the side streets leading off the square to the hated interior ministry, seen as a tool of repression both for Mr Mubarak and the generals.