As protests rage, Egypt’s military tries to reassert its role

November 23, 2011

Facing an intense wave of angry demonstrations, Egypt’s generals are trying to present themselves just as they did during the wintertime revolt: as champions of the demonstrators and the backbone of a rattled nation.

This time, though, the generals are the target of protesters’ ire. Their image as saviors has eroded steadily since they took power in February, and has been badly damaged by five days of deadly clashes between riot police and activists that continued to rage late Wednesday. And their familiar attempts to steer the country are proving far less effective than they were during the first wave of protests last winter.

That was made plain Wednesday, when the military dispatched armored personnel carriers to the streets around Cairo’s Tahrir Square to reinforce their forces and separate police and protesters. It was the military’s most visible presence since the unrest began Sunday, but the calm they were able to impose was brief. Witnesses said protesters broke through the army barrier, and the clashes resumed, the military looking on.

Members of the ruling military council appeared on state television late Wednesday, dismissing critics’ charges that they have tried to broaden their powers, insisting that they should not be compared to the old regime, and urging Egyptians to accept that a transition to democracy cannot happen until next summer.

“The citizens have the right to have their demands met immediately, but in reality this can't happen,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar said.

When the military chiefs took power following the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, they promised a speedy transition to an elected government. Today, the military remains a trusted institution among many Egyptians. But as the military leaders have tightened their grip on the country and prolonged their rule, they have come across as aloof, seemingly unaware of the scope of resentment their leadership has sown, analysts say.

“For whatever reason, whether it’s overconfidence or insecurity, they’ve managed to alienate the early groups that they had co-opted in the early stages of the process,” said Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation in New York.

The military has insisted that parliamentary elections will begin as scheduled Monday. That plan is now facing strong opposition from more than a dozen liberal and leftist political parties, who have urged that the vote be delayed by two weeks. But the military approach has been endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and most organized political force, which is expected to do well in the election.

A pledge by the military Tuesday to accelerate the transition to an elected government by handing over power in July 2012 has done little to stanch the flow of protesters — rich, poor, liberals and Islamists — demanding their immediate departure.

“The violence hasn’t stopped. Those are just words, and we’ve been listening to words for 30 years,” said protester Dalal Dessouky, 31, a flight attendant.

Among those in the square Wednesday were newcomers who said they had been motivated to join the demonstrations by footage of violence that has left at least 35 dead and more than 3,000 wounded, as well as by a defiant speech Tuesday night by the military’s top leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.

International criticism of the Egyptian authorities is also growing. In Geneva, the top United Nations human rights official denounced attempts to suppress demonstrations over the last five days.

“I urge the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, including the apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition,” Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement. “Some of the images coming out of Tahrir, including the brutal beating of already subdued protesters, are deeply shocking, as are the reports of unarmed protesters being shot in the head.”

The grand imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb, Sunni Islam’s most revered academic institution, was also critical of the military’s handling of the crisis. Clerics from the institution went to the square on Wednesday to help calm the violence.

One Egyptian political leader, Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, the head of the leftist Social Democratic Party, complained that Tantawi’s speech did not include public pledges that the military leader said he would make. He said Tantawi had promised privately that his speech would include assurances that the military council would stop the violence, release the dozens arrested in the unrest and compensate the families of protesters who have been killed.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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