Egyptians return to the polls amid clashes

Egyptians returned to the polls on Wednesday in a staggered parliamentary election after six days of violence in Cairo that has cast a pall over the transition to democracy and drawn a US rebuke of Egypt’s security forces.

Tahrir Square and surrounding streets were quiet through the night for the first time in a week. A night earlier, police and soldiers had used teargas and batons to chase protesters demanding an end to army rule out of the square.

The latest confrontations, in which 13 people have been killed, made for a turbulent backdrop to Egypt’s first election since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February. Even before the vote got under way in November, a flare-up in Tahrir killed 42.

Nine provinces, mostly outside the capital, were holding run-off votes on Wednesday and Thursday in the election that is being held over six weeks and ends on January 11.

The ruling army council, which took over from Mubarak, has said it will not let the transition be derailed and has pledged to hand power to an elected president by July. But protesters in the square want the army to return to barracks far sooner.

“God willing, we will complete the revolution by January 25 by bringing down the army council,” said 25-year-old protester Mahmoud, who declined to give his full name. The uprising against Mubarak began on January 25 and lasted 18 days.

Fierce violence
Near where he spoke, the authorities have erected walls of concrete blocks, barring access from the square on roads leading to the Parliament, the Cabinet and interior ministry where violence has been the fiercest.

A few hundred hardy protesters were still in and around the square on Wednesday, surrounded by streets strewn with rocks exchanged between them and security forces. Some protesters held up bullets and cartridge cases they say were used against them.

Traffic passed through other parts of the big square.

The clashes have driven a wedge between those determined to stay on the streets and other Egyptians frustrated by the turmoil, which has damaged the economy, and now desperate for a return of order. Many still see the army as the only institution capable of achieving this.

“All demonstrations should stop to end this violence until we finish elections and elect a president then all the demonstrators can voice their concerns through members of Parliament,” said Erian Saleeb (64) who works in the tourist industry, which has been hammered as visitors have stayed away.

But many have been shocked by images of police and soldiers hitting protesters with batons even after they fell to the ground and, in one case, dragging a woman lying on the ground by her shirt that exposed her underwear and then kicking her.

Turbulent backdrop
The confrontations provide a turbulent backdrop to Egypt’s progress towards democracy with nine provinces, mostly outside the capital, holding run-off votes on Wednesday and Thursday in a parliamentary election being staggered over six weeks.

The army has pledged to hand power to an elected president by July but its plans to permanently shield itself from civilian oversight in the new Constitution have enraged pro-democracy protesters, who want it to hand over power at once.

Medical sources say 13 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the latest violence, which began on Friday in Tahrir and nearby streets leading to Parliament and the Cabinet office.

“Women protesters have been rounded up and subjected to horrific abuse. Journalists have been sexually assaulted. And now women are being attacked, stripped and beaten in the streets,” Clinton said in a speech at Washington’s Georgetown University on Monday.

“This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonours the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people,” she added, in some of the strongest US criticism of Egypt’s new rulers.

The US, which saw deposed leader Hosni Mubarak as a staunch ally, gives Cairo $1.3-billion a year in military aid.

Gunfire rang out across the square at dawn as security forces charged hundreds of protesters and later thousands of women marched on the square to condemn attacks on females who have taken part in the protests. But by nightfall the square was calm again.

The women marchers were dressed in black and accompanied by male demonstrators who vowed to protect them from harassment.

‘Systematic violence’
“The women of Egypt are a red line!” they chanted.

“This is a continuation of the systematic violence we used to witness [under Mubarak],” said Sarah Rifaat, a 27-year-old environmentalist. “They manipulate women, thinking they can break the people and scare them this way.

“What happened to the girl who was stripped and dragged was sheer savagery. We cannot be silent about this. I want someone from the military council to admit responsibility.”

In a statement, the army council that took over after Mubarak was overthrown in February apologised, saying it “respects and appreciates Egyptian women and their right to protest and fully participate in political life”.

General Adel Emara, a member of the council, said on Monday that the attack on the woman protester was an isolated incident and was under investigation. He denied that the army had given orders to clear the square.

Shifting approach
But other generals and their advisers have condemned the pro-democracy protesters, sometimes in extraordinary terms.

“What is your feeling when you see Egypt and its history burn in front of you?” retired general Abdel Moneim Kato, an army adviser, told the daily al-Shorouk, referring to a historic archive building set alight during clashes — the Institute of Egypt. “Yet you worry about a vagrant who should be burnt in Hitler’s incinerators.”

One opposition group that has lowered its profile in the protests is the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party leads the election results after the first round, followed by hard-line Salafi Islamists.

A large percentage of the individual — rather than party list — seats up for grabs in the run-offs will be contested between Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi candidates.

Washington has reached out to Islamists in a shift in approach since the summer. A senior US diplomat met Islamist and other newly elected members of Parliament in the northern city of Alexandria, the embassy said on Tuesday. — Reuters

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