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Tuesday 22 November 2011

Egyptian protesters camp out in Tahrir Square, clash with forces

Egyptian protesters camp out in Tahrir Square, clash with forces

Reuters | Nov 22, 2011, 08.37PM IST
CAIRO: Egyptians frustrated with military rule battled police in the streets again on Tuesday as the generals scrambled to cope with the cabinet's proffered resignation after bloodshed that has jolted plans for Egypt's first free election in decades. 

In a stinging verdict on nine months of army control, London-based rights group Amnesty International accused the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of brutality sometimes exceeding that of former President Hosni Mubarak. 

Thousands of people defied tear gas wafting across Cairo's Tahrir Square, the hub of protests swelling since Friday into the gravest challenge yet to the generals who replaced Mubarak and who seem reluctant to relinquish their power and privilege. 

Protesters in Tahrir carried an open coffin containing the white-shrouded body of one of the 36 people killed so far. 

The army council, headed by a 76-year-old field marshal who served as Mubarak's defence minister for two decades, held talks with politicians on the crisis, in which at least 36 people have been killed and more than 1,250 wounded, medical officials say. 

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi would address the nation later in the day, state television said. 

The United States, which gives Egypt's military $1.3 billion a year in aid, has called for restraint on all sides and urged Egypt to proceed with elections due to start on Monday despite the violence, a stance broadly echoed by many European leaders. 

Protesters waving flags and singing skirmished with security forces in and around Tahrir Square, where banners read "Save Egypt from thieves and the military". As pungent clouds of tear gas set off stampedes, activists chanted "Stay, stay, stay". 

Youth groups have called for a mass turnout later in the day to press demands for the military to give way to civilian rule now, rather than according to its own ponderous timetable, which could keep it in power until late 2012 or early 2013. 


"Come to Tahrir, tomorrow we will overthrow the field marshal!" youthful protesters chanted, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the army commander. 

Tantawi and his colleagues will not formally accept the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's government until they have agreed on a new premier, an army source said. 

It was not clear if the army would try to replace the whole cabinet -- a tough challenge with polling only days away -- or just ditch the unpopular interior and information ministers. 

The army council has vowed to proceed with the parliamentary election due to start on Monday, but the bloody chaos in the heart of Cairo and elsewhere has thrown plans into disarray. 

The powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which anticipates a strong showing in the election, was among five parties at the crisis talks with the military council. Three presidential candidates were also there, but a fourth, Mohamed ElBaradei, stayed away. 

"Elections must be held on time and we will push for a specific timetable for the transitional period," Saad el-Katatni, secretary-general of the Brotherhood's newly formed Freedom and Justice Party, told Reuters by telephone. 

Presidential candidate Amr Moussa echoed the call for the election to go ahead, but said a presidential vote should take place no more than six months after the lengthy process of polling for both houses of parliament is completed in March. 

Under the army's plans, parliament would name a constituent assembly to draw up a constitution within six months that would then go to a referendum. Only after that would a new president be elected to take back the powers of the military council. 

The liberal Wafd party, represented at the talks, called in a statement for a two-week delay in the start of elections. 

Youthful protest groups were staying away from the meeting between politicians and generals. 

"The revolutionary youth are not holding dialogue with the military council. The dialogue is going on in Tahrir square, not behind closed doors with the generals," said Khaled Mardeya, a spokesman for the Jan. 25 Revolution Coalition. 


Anger against the military council exploded this month after a cabinet proposal to set out constitutional principles that would permanently shield the army from civilian oversight. 

Some foes of military rule have demanded that the generals make way immediately for a national salvation government of civilians to manage Egypt's transition to democracy. 

Beyond Cairo, violence has accompanied protests in the northern city of Alexandria and Ismailiya, on the Suez Canal, but nationwide demonstrations against army rule have yet to match the vast numbers that turned out to topple Mubarak. 

In Tahrir, activists sought to control access to the square. Volunteers on motorbikes ferried casualties from clashes with security forces firing tear gas near the Interior Ministry. 

The mood among protesters was determined. "The real revolution begins from today,' said Taymour Abu Ezz, 58. "Nobody will leave until the military council leaves power." 

Ahmad Gad, 20, a student, said: "The people feel that Hosni Mubarak is still ruling. In Tunisiathey already had elections." 

Holding a sign that read "Mubarak, leave", a 50-year-old English teacher named Mohammad Abdullah said: "He's still in power. He just moved his HQ from the palace to the hospital." 

Mubarak, 83, on trial since July for ordering the killing of protesters, has spent months in a military hospital in Cairo. 

Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak's fall, while sectarian clashes, labour unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralysed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability. 

Several banks in central Cairo were closed on Tuesday as a precaution against looting, the state news agency said. 

Amnesty International said the military had made only empty promises to improve human rights. Military courts had tried thousands of civilians and emergency law had been extended. 

Torture had continued in army custody, and there were consistent reports of security forces employing armed "thugs" to attack protesters, it added in a report. 

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