Africa

Thousands flood Tahrir Square in protest as Egypt awaits results

Alastair Macdonald

Protesters filled Cairo's Tahrir Square for Friday prayers as Egypt's presidential candidates accused each other of trying to steal elections.

Men play music as thousands of Egyptian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi gather nearby during a rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square. (AFP)

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohamed Morsy says he has already won, called on supporters to mass in vigil at the birthplace of last year’s Arab Spring revolt until the ruling military council rescinds orders that curb the new president’s powers and also dissolved the new, Islamist-led Parliament.

The delay in announcing the results of two days of voting, which ended on Sunday, has also raised fears that the army may try to swing the election to Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander whom Hosni Mubarak made prime minister just before his fall.

A result is not expected until Saturday or Sunday, giving the country a tense weekend, although the vast majority, many not greatly enamoured of either candidate in the run-off, were staying at home and passing Friday’s Muslim weekend as normal.

For many, both in organised mass Islamist movements and in the more fragmented secular, liberal opposition, a Shafik victory, coupled with the military council taking powers over legislation and drafting a Constitution, would mean that the six decades of army rule they thought were over, will in fact go on.

“This is a classic counter revolution that will only be countered by the might of protesters,” said Safwat Ismail (43) a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who came from the Nile Delta. “I am staying in the square until the military steps down.”

Looking for a battle
Mahmoud Mohammed, a bearded, 31-year-old marine engineer from Alexandria among a group from the more fundamentalist Salafist movement camping on the square insisted they were not looking for a battle, but wanted to see democracy installed.

“The people elected a Parliament and they put it in the rubbish bin. We need the army to hand over,” he said, adding: “No one came here for a fight. We need democracy.”

Around him, the broad traffic interchange by the Nile in central Cairo was filled with makeshift tents offering shade from the midday sun, hawkers offering an array of goods from tea to “I Love Tahrir Square” T-shirts and a mostly devout crowd of men, many bussed in from the provinces, who knelt in prayer.

Other parts of the crowd chanted and waved Egyptian flags.

From the dissolution of Parliament, ordered by judges appointed under Mubarak and enforced by the army, to the military decree on new constitutional arrangements and the delay in announcing the president by an electoral commission also appointed under the old regime, events of the past week have sapped confidence in a process Egyptians hoped would secure the freedoms they thought they won with blood spilt on the square.

Shafik, who was Mubarak’s last premier when the army forced out the dictator to appease the Tahrir protesters, challenged Morsy’s self-proclaimed victory and said on Friday he was sure he had won, despite Islamist pressure on officials.

Cheering supporters
He stopped short of emulating Morsy, whose claimed outright victory on the basis of the Brotherhood’s own tally of results from local polling stations, but said was “confident”.

At a televised address to whooping and cheering supporters, Shafik said: “These protests in the squares, the campaigns of terror and the media manipulation are all attempts to force the election committee to announce a particular result.”

In a country where virtually no one can remember an election that was not rigged before last year, trust is low, not least among Brotherhood officials, many of whom, like Morsy, were jailed under Mubarak for their political activities.

The same electoral commission that handed an improbable 90% of a November 2010 parliamentary vote to Mubarak’s supporters - a result which fuelled the protests that brought him down a few weeks later - sits in judgment on the new presidency.

The Brotherhood has released chunky volumes of what it says are official documents from polling stations allowing it to conclude Morsy won by four percentage points. Shafik’s camp says the Brotherhood is trying to intimidate officials to secure victory, or set the stage for protests if it loses.

Sources on the commission, and in the military, said earlier in the week that preliminary data favoured Morsy - but officials are now bogged down in days of hearing complaints and appeals.

“We are taking our time to review the appeals to investigate them properly but, God willing, the results will be announced by Sunday at latest, if not before that,” Judge Maher el-Beheiry, a member of the election committee, said on Thursday.

Expressing fear
Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan said on Thursday the delay “generates concern, no doubt”, expressing fear that the authorities were getting ready to announce Shafik the winner. “The doubt extends to this possibility.”

Egyptian media have described a nation on edge.

Al-Ahram, the main establishment newspaper, noted there was intense pressure from within Egypt - and from the army’s key sponsor, the US - to sort out the situation quickly to ensure pledges of democracy were met.

It noted that US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had called for an “inclusive democratic process” and said the army must not “dominate or subvert the constitutional authority”.

“The interest of the nation goes before narrow interests,” said reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei, a former UN diplomat and Nobel peace laureate on Twitter. “What is required immediately is a mediation committee to find a political and legal exit from the crisis. Egypt is on the verge of explosion.”

Adding to unease, Mubarak is himself back in the news, being transferred to a military hospital on Tuesday evening from the prison where he began a life sentence this month.

Military and security sources have given a confusion of accounts about his condition, from “clinically dead” at one point, to being on life support after a stroke to “stabilising”. Many Egyptians suspect his fellow generals may be exaggerating his illness to get their old comrade out of jail. - Reuters

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