Protesters rage against Egypt military’s ‘hollow gesture’

Egypt’s army chief, seeking to defuse street protests that have left 37 people dead, promised a swifter handover to civilian rule but failed to convince thousands of hard-core demonstrators, some of whom battled police through the night.

One man was killed in clashes early on Wednesday in the second city Alexandria — one of several towns that saw unrest.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who has run the ruling military council since mass protests unseated his long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in February, made a faltering televised address on Tuesday in which he promised a civilian president would be elected in June — about six months sooner than planned.

Confirming Egypt’s first free parliamentary election in decades will start on Monday, the council also accepted the resignation of the civilian prime minister and his Cabinet who had incensed democrats with a short-lived proposal that the army remain beyond civilian control under any new Constitution.

But Tantawi angered many of the youthful demonstrators on Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in other cities by suggesting a referendum on whether military rule should end earlier — a move many saw as a hollow gesture, and a ploy to appeal to the many Egyptians who fear further upheaval and to divide those from the young activists.

“Leave! Leave!” came the chants in Cairo and, in an echo of February’s chorus: “The people want to topple the marshal.”

Skirmishes
Long into the night, while small groups on the fringes skirmished with police in clouds of teargas, those occupying the main square sang: “He must go! We won’t go!”

The field marshal, hanged in effigy on Tahrir Square in a visual echo of Mubarak’s final days, seems intent on preserving the armed forces’ vast business interests built up over six decades of effective military rule. But there was no renewal of earlier heavy-handed efforts to clear the area.

Parliamentary elections will start on Monday — a plan confirmed at a meeting between the army and politicians — but they will take until January to complete. It is not clear how a referendum on military rule might be organised or what alternative might be proposed until June’s presidential vote.

Tantawi, defence minister under Mubarak for two decades, appeared hesitant, speaking in field uniform, as he told the 80 million Egyptians his army did not want power:

“The army is ready to go back to barracks immediately if the people wish that through a popular referendum, if need be.”

Tens of thousands packed Tahrir, the seat of the revolution which ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule, from Tuesday afternoon and, though most drifted away, thousands remained camped through the night into Wednesday while in tense side-streets skirmishes, diehards pelted police who hit back with batons and teargas.

Market impact
Many of the protesters saw the suggestion of a referendum, vague in its content, as a ploy to split the nation:

“He is trying to say that, despite all these people in Tahrir, they don’t represent the public,” said 32-year-old Rasha, one of dozens huddled around a radio in the nearby Cafe Riche, a venerable Cairo landmark. “He wants to pull the rug from under them and take it to a public referendum.”

A military source said Tantawi’s referendum offer would come into play “if the people reject the field marshal’s speech” but did not explain how the popular mood would be assessed.

In Alexandria, on the Mediterranean, protesters waved shoes in a sign of disrespect. In five days of protests in various cities, at least 1 250 people have been injured in addition to the 37 killed — a figure that includes Wednesday’s death.

The unrest has knocked Egypt’s markets. The benchmark share index has fallen 11% since Thursday, hitting its lowest level since March 2009. The Egyptian pound fell to its weakest against the dollar since January 2005.

Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak’s fall while sectarian clashes, labour unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralysed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability. — Reuters

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Patrick Werr
Patrick Werr works from Cairo, Egypt. Economics and finance journalist based in Egypt for 26 years, writing on the Egyptian economy for Reuters and for Abu Dhabi’s National newspaper. Patrick Werr has over 228 followers on Twitter.

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