Egypt's army demands end to strikes; opposition vows to push for change

By Craig Whitlock and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 14, 2011; 2:47 PM

CAIRO - Egypt's military called Monday for an end to the strikes and protests that have practically paralyzed the country since late last month, but thousands of police and other state employees took to the streets to demand better pay and working conditions, and pro-democracy leaders vowed to keep demonstrating if their demands for change are not met.

Even as the army cleared Cairo's Tahrir Square of most of the protesters whose peaceful uprising ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, the labor unrest triggered by the popular revolt showed no sign of abating. In addition to police, state employees ranging from ambulance drivers to transport workers took part in Monday's demonstrations.

Leaders of the pro-democracy movement, for their part, were planning a massive "victory march" Friday to celebrate their revolution and maintain pressure for fundamental change. According to opposition activists, military leaders indicated that they were willing to share power with civilians and amend the constitution by plebiscite within a couple of months.

In addition, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq informed him that the cabinet would be reshuffled in the coming week to bring in opposition figures, Reuters news agency reported.

Meanwhile, however, the military rulers who took over Friday from Mubarak called on state television for an end to the demonstrations and appeared poised to ban all gatherings, strikes and sit-ins in an effort to return to normalcy.

In its latest communique, the military leadership said that "these strikes, at this delicate time, lead to negative results," harming economic production and security.

A few dozen demonstrators nevertheless remained in Tahrir Square demanding the release of political prisoners. And labor and professional unions and public sector employees seemed determined to align themselves with the mass democracy movement and distance themselves from the government that used to employ them.

Mubarak's whereabouts remained uncertain, and there were reports that he was in poor health.

His ouster, after an massive, 18-day outpouring of public opposition, continued to reverberate throughout the Muslim world, with anti-government demonstrations underway Monday in Tehran, Yemen and Bahrain. In the West Bank, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad dissolved his cabinet as a step toward preparing for general elections later this year.

The generals who took power Friday imposed martial law on Sunday, dissolving parliament and suspending the constitution. Many of the protesters who helped topple Mubarak said the military's moves were necessary to excise a rotten form of government.

In a written communique, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, said the military rule was temporary and would last until elections are held, possibly as soon as six months from now. A new set of guiding laws will be drafted by an appointed committee and made subject to a referendum, the military chiefs said.

The parliament disbanded by the military had been a rubber-stamp body dominated by ruling-party members who prevailed in rigged November elections. The constitution had also been skewed heavily in favor of Mubarak's regime.

Opposition figures praised the moves as important first steps toward free elections but urged further measures to sweep away the old guard. Some expressed alarm at efforts to clear Cairo's Tahrir Square of remaining protesters. Some criticized a decision by the military rulers to leave Mubarak's cabinet in place.

"By no means can they concentrate on fixing the problems and investigating what happened under the former regime, because they are the ones responsible," said Alaa al Aswany, an Egyptian novelist and democracy activist.

It remains far from clear how quickly elections might be held in Egypt. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, officially banned under Mubarak, has pressed for speedy elections. Some democracy activists have said that it might take much longer than six months to prepare the ground for a fair contest.

On Sunday, about 500 police officers, demanding higher wages, marched through Tahrir Square and blocked the entrance to the Interior Ministry. Workers at state banks held sit-ins, forcing Egypt's central bank to declare Monday a bank holiday. The antiquities-rich Egyptian Museum reported that two statues of King Tutankhamen and 16 other artworks had been looted.

"Our concern now is security, to bring security back to the Egyptian citizen," Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said after presiding over a meeting of the caretaker cabinet. "That sense has been lost since the beginning of the events. It's been coming back, but not as quickly as we hoped."

Before the session, workers removed a huge portrait of Mubarak that had kept watch over the meeting room.

Unlike the police and other domestic security forces that Mubarak used to brutalize his political foes, the armed forces are seen by many Egyptians as their protectors and saviors. The military permitted the protests to unfold peacefully during the 18-day revolution. Many soldiers and officers made clear that their sympathies lay with the people.

For the near term, at least, the man running the country is Tantawi, 75, a close ally of Mubarak's who served under him as defense minister and commander in chief of the armed forces. The military council's communique said Tantawi would function as Egypt's head of state in international relations.

Retired military officers and analysts described Tantawi as pragmatic and conservative, with no visible political aspirations. They said he has the support of other senior commanders, including Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, the armed forces' chief of staff.

"Tantawi does not have ambitions to run for president. No one in the supreme council has that wish," said Hosam Sowilam, a retired major general and former military college classmate of Tantawi's. "We are military people. We don't want to indulge in any political matters. We want to only participate in defending our territory and preserving the independence and stability of the country."

Over the years, Tantawi has kept close ties with U.S. government and military officials. "He understands the importance of this relationship," said Mohamed Kadry Said, a former major general who is an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

Tantawi is also seen as a reliable ally by Israel, which has feared greater instability with Mubarak's departure. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has affirmed that Egypt will honor its international treaty obligations, including its peace accord with Israel.

But some military analysts said that despite protestations to the contrary, Tantawi and other generals might find that they enjoy ruling Egypt without any checks on their authority.

"In a few months, after they realize how powerful they are and if they believe they can control the country and restore stability, I am not sure they won't fall in love with their huge influence," said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general who is an analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. "Under certain circumstances, they can find excuses as to why an election cannot be held at the moment."

Some demonstrators said they would continue to occupy Tahrir Square until the generals acceded to other demands, including the release of thousands of political prisoners and the repeal of Egypt's state-of-emergency law, which Mubarak imposed almost 30 years ago as a tool to repress political opponents.

"How can there be freedom as long as the emergency law exists?" said Ram Ebead, 32, an unemployed chemist who has camped out in the plaza since protests erupted Jan. 25. "How can there be freedom without the release of political prisoners?"

Other organizers said they would leave Tahrir Square for now but would return every Friday to pressure the military to make good on its promises.

"The people will be frustrated if the military stays in power more than six months," said Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. Analysts said the group stands to benefit from snap elections because it is Egypt's best-organized political movement.

Erian urged the military to cancel the emergency law and to release the prisoners, many of them Brotherhood supporters. But he also praised the military for the measures it has taken.

"We're on the right road," Erian said. "Transitions from dictatorship to democracy are very difficult. It will take time."

Special correspondent Samuel Sockol contributed to this report.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company