Cairo — Egypt’s military rulers rejected calls Thursday to delay parliamentary elections scheduled to take place next week and issued a strongly worded statement that has the potential to further polarize the country as it reels from a week of violent protests.
The statement called on “honorable people” to apprehend those causing strife and turn them over to the authorities. The vague directive could encourage vigilantism between camps supportive and critical of the military as the unrest that has left at least 38 dead and thousands wounded continues to sow anger and frazzle nerves.
“Egypt is going through a decisive moment in the history of its revolution that demands alertness and solidarity from each and every one of us in order to stop the state from turning and from entering into a state of complete chaos,” the statement said.
The communique was the latest in a series of moves made by the country’s military leaders this week in a thus-far futile attempt to restore order and salvage their damaged reputation.
“This is the military spreading chaos, and it’s very, very irresponsible,” said Heba Morayef, an Egypt researcher for Human Rights Watch. “It fits in with their narrative, which is the military is the neutral guardian of security which enjoys the trust of the people. That’s why they would much rather have private citizens involved in identifying ‘thugs’ and ‘agents.’ ”
In an earlier statement, the generals took the unusual step of apologizing for the deaths and promised to provide medical care to those wounded battling riot police near Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The statement prompted activists to ask why the leaders hadn’t stopped the attacks by police and military forces days ago.
The bloodshed and the manner in which the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has responded have led to unprecedented criticism of an institution that has for decades been considered sacrosanct.
“After nine months, everyone has finally realized that the SCAF is driving the country to the edge and that the blood being spilled in Tahrir Square right now is nothing but the final episode of a series of mistakes and crimes committed by the military council,” the Egyptian Social Democratic Party said in a statement Thursday. The liberal party was among those who called for a two-week postponement of the vote scheduled to take place Monday. They are demanding an immediate transfer of most of the military council’s power to a national unity government led by a consensus figure.
After nearly a week of intense fighting, the clashes in Cairo appeared to subside Thursday as the military erected a barrier on the street that connects Tahrir Square and the Interior Ministry. Throughout the week, riot police fired large amounts of tear gas, rubber-coated bullets and apparently live ammunition from the building. Fights between protesters and security forces also broke out in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city, and other parts of the country.
The military chiefs’ standing has taken a hit. A poll conducted in October and released this week by the Brookings Institution said 43 percent of Egyptians believe the military council is working to slow or reverse gains of the January revolution that facilitated a soft coup that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
When they assumed power, the generals vowed to govern the country until an elected government could be established in six months, but they decided later that they needed to remain in control for as long as two years. They were heavily criticized for a deadly crackdown on Coptic Christian demonstrators last month in Cairo that left 26 people dead. And their recent attempts to keep their budget secret and limit the amount of oversight elected officials would have on the armed forces through a constitutional document has fueled concerns that the generals aren’t committed to democratic principles.
Speaking to reporters Thursday, two members of the military council were defensive and accused some of the protesters of stirring violence by trying to attack the Interior Ministry building.
After intense prodding about videos and witness accounts that evidenced the brutality of the crackdown, one of the commanders acknowledged that security forces might have overreacted.
“I do not deny that violations have occurred,” Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla said, adding that videos of the beatings were being studied and investigated. “I’m not saying that the police and armed forces are all angels.”
Abdel Moez Ibrahim, the head of the country’s judicial election commission, said the government would hold elections as scheduled because they are the “lifeline that will get us through this phase.”
Egypt’s caretaker government resigned Monday as a result of the unrest.
Meanwhile, prominent Egyptian American columnist Mona Eltahawy, who was detained near Tahrir Square on Wednesday, said in a Twitter message that she was released Thursday after spending 12 hours in detention during which she said she was beaten and sexually assaulted. Both her arms were broken.
She wrote on Twitter that her captors “groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers.”
She said being an American citizen probably led to her prompt release.
“The past 12 hrs were painful and surreal but I know I got off much much easier than so many other Egyptians,” she wrote on Twitter. “God knows what wuld’ve happened if I wasn’t dual citizen.”
Protesters continued to erect tents in Tahrir Square on Thursday, where many say they intend to stay until the military chiefs step down. The flurry of communiques and messages from the generals did little to appease the demonstrators, who are treating the struggle as life-or-death.
“Why do they release statements after everything that’s happened?” said Mohammad Said, 21, an accountant. “Why do they wait for everything to be destroyed? Why not release the statements that people want to hear before all the destruction?”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.