11/24/2011

After Apology, Egypt’s Military Rejects Quick End to Its Rule

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Anthony Shadid and David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris. Liam Stack and Dina Salah Amer contributed reporting from Cairo.

CAIRO — Egyptian generals offered an unusual apology on Thursday for the killings of protesters in Tahrir Square, the iconic landmark of the country’s revolution, but rejected the demonstrators’ demands for an immediate end to military rule. As violence around the square eased after five days of intense clashes, the military also insisted that parliamentary elections, scheduled for next Monday, would proceed as planned. “We will not delay elections. This is the final word,” Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of the ruling military council told a news conference. Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah, another council member, told the news conference that the military would not relinquish power because to do so would be “a betrayal of the trust placed in our hands by the people.”
Egyptians must focus on the elections, he said, not on street protests. “We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd,” he said, according to The Associated Press, “Being in power is not a blessing. It is a curse. It’s a very heavy responsibility.” On what had been the front line of the confrontation near the square, army troops in black helmets and visors replaced the police — reviled by many protesters — and a crane lowered cement barricades behind a line of coiled barbed wire to separate the protesters from the Interior Ministry building, near the library of the American University in Cairo.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces presents its regrets and deep apologies for the deaths of martyrs from among Egypt’s loyal sons during the recent events in Tahrir Square,” two generals said in a statement on a Facebook page. “The council also offers its condolences to the families of the martyrs across Egypt.” The message struck an apparently conciliatory tone as the ruling military commanders seek to defuse the crisis in time for the elections. But thousands of people remained in Tahrir Square, many demanding the ouster of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de facto leader and a longtime colleague of the deposed former president, Hosni Mubarak. News reports quoting the state-owned Middle East News Agency said the commanders’ message was issued in the names of Maj. Gen. Mohammed Al-Assar and Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Hijazi, two members of the ruling military council who are subordinate to Field Marshal Tantawi. Two days ago, Field Marshal Tantawi went on television to promise that presidential elections would be held in the first half of next year. But he did not offer an apology for the killings and his words did little to placate the demonstrators.
A semblance of calm returned to Tahrir Square on Thursday morning after a night of some of the worst clashes since the protests began. A haze of tear gas had receded and protesters said clashes stopped early morning. Crowds still gathered in a street leading to the Interior Ministry, but the cacophony of tear-gas rounds, chants, and the cries of protesters ferrying the wounded had diminished. Vendors did brisk business selling gas masks. As the lines separated, an army major sought to strike up a dialogue with the protesters across the barricades. He leaned his ear in, unable to hear over demonstrators chanting: “The people want the fall of the field marshal!” On another street leading to the Interior Ministry, security forces strung a second coil of barbed wire, reinforcing the protective cordon around the building. About 75 yards behind the wire, a row of soldiers in helmets and shields formed up in front of two armored personnel carriers. So intense have the tear-gas barrages been in the last few days that the chemicals have mixed with the city’s ubiquitous dust so that when the dust is kicked up, people start coughing and sneezing. “The army can’t retake control of the square anymore,” said Sherif Ibrahim, a high school teacher. “It’s just not possible.” Another protester’s banner declared: “The army protects. It does not rule.” Facing the lines of soldiers beyond the barbed wire, protesters chanted slogans like “Leave” and “He who loves Egypt won’t destroy Egypt.” Throughout the week of confrontation, the military that seized power with Mr. Mubarak’s fall has rebuffed protesters’ demands to surrender authority, and the political elite has seemed paralyzed or on the defensive over the unrest. The discontent in Tahrir Square has broadened from demands for the generals to cede control and anger over bloodshed into dissatisfaction with a transition that has delivered precious little since the uprising’s heady days in February. By mid-morning Thursday, news reports said, a shaky informal truce appeared to be holding. The clashes in darkened streets, suffused with tear gas and eerily illuminated by the flashing lights of police cars and the floodlights of armored personnel carriers, seemed to stand as a metaphor for a political transition that has careened into deep uncertainty just days before elections that were supposed to anchor the shift from military to civilian rule. The sense of uncertainty that prevailed in Egypt echoed some of the most anxious days of the uprising that began in January against Mr. Mubarak’s nearly 30 years of rule. Though life went on in much of the capital, the protests demonstrated a resilience they had lacked for months, and episodes of dissent have erupted in other parts of the country, including Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city. Neither politicians nor the military seemed ready to embrace a drastic step that many insisted was needed to end the unrest. Crowds were anchored by a demand that has become the anthem since the crisis began: the fall of Field Marshal Tantawi. In the square’s side streets, youths fought the police to the backdrop of unending ambulance sirens. “If he leaves it like this and stays silent, it will be a disaster,” said Suleiman Mahmoud, as he stood in a street that looked like a symbol for urban distress — pools of stagnant water strewn with rocks, shattered glass, trash and fallen tree branches. “He’ll pay the price, and the country will pay the price. Stubbornness is not a solution.” With political leaders tentative, and signs that the military was unable to exert control over the police, other voices emerged in the country on Wednesday, demanding some kind of action. Most important was the grand imam of Al Azhar, an institution that is a prominent seat of religious scholarship long co-opted by the government but now seeking a more independent role. The grand imam, Sheik Ahmed al-Tayyeb, called on the police not to fire on protesters, “no matter what the reason.” He urged protesters to restrain themselves and demanded that the military, whose relations with the Interior Ministry and its loathed police forces have long been strained, do everything it could to prevent more clashes. “Al Azhar reminds everybody that dialogue stained with blood is doomed, and its fruit will be bitter in the throats of everyone,” the cleric’s statement said. His warnings were echoed abroad, in a sign of growing international concern over the crisis in the Arab world’s most populous country. The French Foreign Ministry condemned what it called “the excessive use of force against demonstrators,” and Navi Pillay, the United Nations human rights chief, called for an independent investigation into the bloodshed, which has left 38 people dead and hundreds wounded since it began Saturday.