Egypt: regime in crisis as Tahrir Square protesters hang on

Protests rocked Cairo for a sixth day Nov. 23, as security forces again used tear gas in another effort to clear Tahrir Square. Clashes raged in surrounding streets, and the square was illuminated by floodlights mounted on armored personnel carriers. Health officials say 32 are now dead in the six days of unrest. Protests also broke out in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, the canal city of Suez, the central city of Qena, the northern city of Port Said, Assiut and Aswan in the south, in the Nile Delta province of Daqahliya, and the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) said parliamentary elections planned for next week will not be postponed. In a bid to defuse the protests, SCAF chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi pledged in a rare televised address Nov. 22 to hold a presidential election by the end of June, and acceded to the resignation of the military-appointed cabinet. But protesters pledge to keep up their occupation of Tahrir Square until a civilian government takes over. A popular slogan at the protests is “Tantawi is Mubarak.”

The SCAF has invited the country’s political forces for crisis talks. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized political force, has joined the talks, as did presidential hopeful and former Arab League chief Amr Mussa and the head of the liberal Wafd party Sayyed Badawi. Meanwhile, 22 parties issued a statement applauding prime minister Essam Sharaf’s resignation, and expressing their readiness to immediately form national unity government. (Middle East Online, LAT, NYT, MENAFN, BBC World Service, Nov. 23)

After several days of calling for “restraint on both sides,” the US State Department on Nov. 23 issued a statement saying: “We condemn the excess of force used by the police and we strongly urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint, to discipline its forces and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves.” (The Telegraph, Nov. 23) Egyptian security forces are believed to be now using a more powerful and incapacitating gas against civilian protesters in Tahrir Square following multiple cases of unconsciousness and convulsions among those exposed. (The Guardian, Nov. 23)

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay “urge[d] the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protestors in Tahrir square and elsewhere in the country, including the apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.” She also called for a “prompt, impartial and independent investigation, and accountability for those found responsible for the abuses that have taken place.” Pillay reminded Egyptian authorities that they “have an obligation to provide protection for all and ensure a peaceful and safe environment in the lead-up to next week’s crucial elections.” (Jurist, Nov. 23)

In “Broken Promises: Egypt’s Military Rulers Erode Human Rights,” Amnesty International charges: “The human rights balance sheet for SCAF shows that after nine months in charge of Egypt, the aims and aspirations of the January 25 revolution have been crushed. The brutal and heavy-handed response to protests in the last few days bears all the hallmarks of the Mubarak era.” The report especially points to the use of military tribunals, finding that by August, the SCAF had tried some 12,000 civilians across the country under “grossly unfair” conditions. At least 13 have been sentenced to death. Charges against defendants have included “thuggery,” “breaking the curfew,” “damaging property” and “insulting the army.” Throughout the Mubarak regime, such trials were reserved for just some 25 high-profile political cases, such as the 2008 conviction of the former deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shatir. (AI, Nov. 21; UNHCR, April 29)

Muslim Brotherhood isolated from protest movement
The Muslim Brotherhood appears to have split over the recent crisis, with its newly formed Freedom and Justice Party sticking by movement’s strategy to co-operate with the interim military regime and refrain from joining the protests in Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood is now said to have thrown its support behind a proposed new military-appointed government to be led by presidential candidate Amr Moussa.

A dissident element in the Brotherhood has joined the protests and launched its own party, the Egyptian Current—which avoids religious references in its rhetoric and seems to be tilting in a more secular direction. Shehab El-Din Ahmed, one of the Egyptian Current’s leaders in Fayoum governorate, was killed during the clashes between protesters and security forces in Tahrir Square. (Globe & Mail, AP, Nov. 23; Ahram Online, Nov. 21)

See our last posts on Egypt and the Arab revolutions.

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