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Egypt’s protesters call for seat at table

Volunteers pick up garbage and rocks from the street Saturday outside the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square. (Associated Press)
Volunteers pick up garbage and rocks from the street Saturday outside the Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square. (Associated Press)

Coalition issues demands, including voice in country’s transition

CAIRO, Egypt – On Egypt’s first day in nearly 30 years without Hosni Mubarak as president, its new military rulers promised Saturday to abide by the peace treaty with Israel and eventually hand power to an elected government. Protesters, still partying over their victory in pushing Mubarak out, now pressed for a voice in guiding their country’s move to democracy.

The protesters’ first act was deeply symbolic of their ambition to build a new Egypt and their determination to do it themselves: Thousands began cleaning up Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, the epicenter of their movement. The sprawling plaza was battered and trashed by 18 days of street battles and rallies by hundreds of thousands.

Even as thousands flowed in to celebrate, broom brigades fanned out, with smiling young men and women – some in stylish clothes and earrings – sweeping up rubble and garbage. Others repaired sidewalks torn apart for concrete chunks to use as ammunition in fighting with pro-regime gangs. Young veiled girls painted the metal railings of fences along the sidewalk. “Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re building Egypt,” read placards many wore.

“We are cleaning the square now because it is ours,” said Omar Mohammed, a 20-year-old student. “After living here for three weeks, it has become our home. … We’re going to leave it better than before.”

A coalition of youth groups that organized the protests issued their first cohesive list of demands for handling the transition to democracy. Their focus was on ensuring they – not just the military or members of Mubarak’s regime – have a seat at the table in deliberations shaping the future.

Among their demands: lifting of emergency law; creation of a presidential council, made up of a military representative and two “trusted personalities”; the dissolving of the ruling party-dominated parliament; and the forming of a broad-based unity government and a committee to either amend or rewrite completely the constitution.

“The revolution is not over. This is just a beginning. We are working on how to move into a second republic,” said Shady el-Ghazali Harb, the representative on the coalition from one of the youth organizing groups, the Democratic Front.

Protesters were debating whether to lift their 24-hour demonstration camp in Tahrir.

Many in the square were pouring love on the military: Families put babies on the laps of soldiers on tanks for photos, crowds cheered when a line of soldiers jogged by. But there was also realism that the military’s ultimate intention is unclear.

“We don’t know what they’ll do; they might keep hanging on to power,” said Muhammed Ali, a 22-year-old archaeology student who argued for the protests to continue.

With Mubarak gone, Egypt’s future will likely be shaped by three powers: the military, the protesters, and the sprawling autocratic infrastructure of Mubarak’s regime that remains in place, dominating the bureaucracy, the police, state media and parts of the economy. Right now, the protesters’ intentions are clearest.

The Armed Forces Supreme Council is now the official ruler. It consists of the commanders of each military branch, the chief of staff and Defense Minister Hussein Tantawy. It has not explicitly canceled the constitution drawn up by Mubarak’s regime, but the constitution seems to have effectively been put in a cupboard for the time being.

The military seized power after pleas from protesters, and it has repeatedly promised to ensure democratic change.

But on the face of it, the elderly generals are no reformers, and their move to push out Mubarak may have been more to ensure the survival of a ruling system the military has been intertwined with since a 1952 army coup. The deeply secretive military has substantial economic interests, running industries and businesses that it will likely seek to preserve.

The council of generals has said nothing so far about how the transition will be carried out or addressed the protesters’ demands.

A spokesman, Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, appeared on state TV in front of a row of Egyptian military and national flags and read the council statement, proclaiming that the military is “looking forward to a peaceful transition … to permit an elected civil authority to be in charge of the country to build a democratic free nation.”

The military statement also said Egypt will “abide by all regional and international treaties and agreements, and commitments” – reassurance to its top ally the United States that Egypt’s 1979 peace accord with Israel is not in danger.

Also, the Supreme Council asked the current government, installed by Mubarak after protests broke out Jan. 25, and provincial governors to “continue their activities until a new government is formed.”

It did not say when that would happen, but it seemed to imply the army would draw one up to replace the current one.

The move to keep the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq in place appeared to be a stopgap measure to keep the state and economy functioning at a time when the country is trying to recover from the economic fallout of the upheaval.

The Supreme Council statement asked the public, particularly the millions in the government sector, to “work to push the economy forward,” an apparent call for everyone to return to work.

The military relaxed the curfew – now to run from midnight to 6 a.m. instead of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. – and the stock market announced plans to reopen on Wednesday after a closure of nearly three weeks.

The other force that has hardly been heard from is the remainder of Mubarak’s regime, which was accused of widespread corruption and authoritarianism but also has the experience in the nitty-gritty of running the country, unlike the military.

Members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party still dominate ministries, parliament, state industries and other bodies. The powerful security forces, accused of widespread use of torture and involvement in past vote-rigging, remain empowered by the emergency law that gives them wide authorities of arrest.

The regime remainders are battered. Some of its top personalities were purged in Mubarak’s last days. Seeking to placate protester demands, the public prosecutor has launched a corruption investigation into four of the millionaire businessman politicians who came to dominate the NDP under the leadership of Mubarak’s son, Gamal – former ministers Ahmed Maghrabi, Rashid Mohammed Rashid and Zuheir Garana as well as ex-ruling party figure Ahmed Ezz.


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