11.20.11

Egypt in Chaos as Protesters Call for Military Council to Transfer Power

As violence rages into its second day in Egypt, protesters are calling for the military council to step down.

The activists were still trying to figure out the lay of the land. Packed into an office near Tahrir Square, a cohort of organizers discussed the surprising events of the past 48 hours. They hadn’t expected Friday's mass demonstration in Tahrir Square to turn into an extended two-day standoff with police, with protesters still chanting anti-military slogans as vendors festively peddled cotton candy just beyond the front lines on Sunday afternoon. Now they were trying to figure out what should come next. “We need to have a strategy,” one of them said. “What are we asking for?”

Cell phones started buzzing. The activists glanced at their messages, and dashed out of the office, towards the spot where authorities were clearing the square in a haze of tear gas. “The people want the fall of the regime!” they shouted, rushing toward the melee.

Soon the square was evacuated, with waves of people running back from the front lines. But within minutes, the protesters managed to push their way back inside, where a few riot police in fatigues could be seen wandering around, as if unsure what to do next. Protesters rushed past them and small fires smouldered nearby. "I have no idea what's next," said activist Nadine Wahab, as she stood in the roundabout, called the "medan." Wahab pointed out that just yesterday morning, the roundabout housed a couple hundred people, a straggly remnant from the large but peaceful protest the day before. Then the crackdown began and Cairenes rushed into the streets to join the fray. "Now the medan is full," Wahab said.

As the violence in Egypt raged into its second day, there seemed to be a fundamental shift underway on Cairo's street. Protesters faced wave after wave of police attack but ultimately stood their ground. "People are not going to stop," said journalist Ahmed Emam as he surveyed the scene in the square.

As of last night, Egyptian state news had reported that close to 700 were injured, and at least two killed in the unrest. Chaos has also been reported in Alexandra, Port Said, Tanta, Mansoura, Sohag, and Suez. Those numbers promise to increase today. And as the conflict continues, questions are being raised on whether the military council—which has ruled the country since the ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak—is starting to lose its grip. "The military has no power, just oppression," says Sally Thomas, one of the leaders of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the organizing body in Tahrir since Egypt's revolutionary movement started on Jan 25.

Ever since the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) took control of the country, Egyptians have grown increasingly suspicious of the military’s intentions. SCAF stoked those fears by instituting emergency rule, trying civilians in military courts and seeming to push back the timeline for electing a president. Earlier this month, the vice prime minister floated a recent proposal to allow the military and its budget to remain exempt from civilian oversight.  Supporters of new political parties—especially of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerhouse Islamist group that stands to make big electoral gains on Nov. 28—have expressed fears that the military might even postpone parliamentary elections in the interest of maintaining control over the country.

“If security is not applied, we will implement the rule of law,” said one general. “Anyone who does wrong will pay for it.”

Now the Revolutionary Youth Coalition and other groups have taken the opportunity to demand that SCAF stand down, calling in unison tonight for a transfer of power to a civilian government. According to a campaign aide of Mohamed ElBaradei, the Egyptian presidential candidate and Nobel laureate, plans to back this call when he appears on one of Egypt's top talk shows Sunday evening. Abul Fatooh, a leading liberal candidate, will join him in this demand, according to the aide.

For its part, the military seems to be retrenching its position. On Saturday night, SCAF member Gen. Mohsen El-Fangari rebuked the protesters on Al-Hayat TV: “The aim of what is going on is to shake the backbone of the state, which is the armed forces,” he said. “If security is not applied, we will implement the rule of law. Anyone who does wrong will pay for it.”

Activists are anticipating more crackdowns, starting tonight. They remain adamant to hold the square. "We cannot go back," protester Basem Fathy said.