By Craig Whitlock and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2011; 12:52 PM
CAIRO - Egypt's military chiefs seized near-complete control of the country Sunday by dissolving the parliament and suspending the constitution. The leaders of the armed forces, however, said they would only keep power for six months, or until new elections can be held.
In the meantime, the Supreme Military Council said it would exercise self-asserted authority to decree new laws and maintain stability, according to a communiqué read on state television. The generals also said they would appoint a committee to overhaul the constitution and put the proposed changes to a popular vote in a referendum.
Although the declarations mean the military is grabbing absolute power, the announcements met some of the central demands made by the revolutionary movement that forced President Hosni Mubarak from office Friday.
Protesters had insisted on the dissolution of parliament, a new constitution, a transitional government and a clear timetable for Egypt to hold free and credible elections. They also asked for the repeal of Egypt's repressive 30-year-old state of emergency law; the military has previously pledged to lift it when calm returns to the country, but did not commit to a date.
The military's communiqué implied that national elections could be held within six months, but again did not specify a date.
The announcement came shortly after Mubarak's former cabinet held its first meeting since his abdication. The military ordered the cabinet to continue serving in a caretaker role until a new government can be formed.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said the government's first concern was to restore order. "Our concern now in the cabinet is security, to bring security back to the Egyptian citizen," he told a press conference.
"That sense has been lost since the beginning of the events. It's been coming back, but not as quickly as we hoped."
The military communiqué also came as soldiers tangled with protesters on Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrators. Soldiers evicted demonstrators from parts of the plaza as they tried to restore a measure of normalcy to the Egyptian capital.
As daylight broke, soldiers dismantled tents from the makeshift camps that have occupied Tahrir Square since Jan. 25, when protests erupted in Cairo. Some weary demonstrators evacuated voluntarily. Others stood their ground or scuffled with soldiers, though both sides generally refrained from brute force.
By mid-morning the military had re-opened the square to traffic for the first time in three weeks. But an uneasy mood persisted. Several thousand protesters flocked back to the square as the day unfolded and regained much of their lost ground. Many said they were not ready to give up.
"We want to stay here until they fulfill our demands," said Mahmoud Sharif, 27, who had spent 10 days and nights in Tahrir.
Meantime, pockets of disorder erupted elsewhere. An aggressive crowd of several hundred police officers - who have largely been on strike or absent from the streets for the past 10 days - marched through the streets to demand pay raises and other benefits.
Many Egyptians harbor deep suspicions about the police, who roughly tried to suppress anti-Mubarak protests in the days prior to his resignation. In contrast, Egyptians have expressed gratitude to the armed forces for standing by and not interfering with the revolution.
The police demonstrators, clad mostly in black leather jackets, swept past a handful of military checkpoints to reach Tahrir Square. There, they stood nose-to-nose with pro-democracy protesters, who seemed skeptical of their intentions.
Chanting, "The police and the people are one," the officers avoided a confrontation and marched a few blocks to the Egyptian Interior Ministry building, where they were finally halted by an army barricade and a three-star general standing athwart a tank.
The police, who report to the ministry, laid out demands for better pay and health care. But they also seemed intent on trying to repair their public image as pro-Mubarak bullies. "We are not thieves," they chanted.
"We have been accused of running away from the city [during the revolution], but we didn't run away," said Mohammed Said, a 15-year veteran of the Cairo police force. He said he earned only 500 Egyptian pounds a month, or about $85, and wanted more.
Eventually, Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdy emerged from the hulking building to listen to the complaints in person. He was appointed by Mubarak last week, just prior to the president's resignation, as part of a shakeup of senior government leaders.
"Give me a chance," he implored the police.
With Mubarak gone, other civil servants also saw an opportunity to voice their grievances.
A few blocks from the Interior Ministry, a couple hundred protesters held a noisy sit-in at the front entrance of the Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit. They were employees of the state-owned bank and also wanted a raise.
But they aimed most of their ire at the bank's chairman, whom they described as a profit-skimming Mubarak crony intent on ruining the bank's bottom line.
Ahmed Mahmoud, a bank manager involved in the protests, accused his bosses of trying to turning the bank into a money-losing operation. He said the hidden intent was to privatize its operations - and sell it cheap to politically connected investors, a common complaint during Mubarak's rule.
"Today is our ideal chance to make our voices heard," Mahmoud said. "You would never see these kind of protests before, not when we had a dictator."
Washington Post Foreign Service