Egypt protests: Tahrir Square deaths trigger cabinet's resignation

At least 24 have been killed in fresh Tahrir Square protests against the military junta. The cabinet resigned today, but many say the standoff can be ended only by significant concessions from the military.

Mohammed Abu Zaid/AP
Egyptian protesters gather around Tahrir square during the clashes with the Egyptian riot police, unseen, in Tahrir square, Cairo, Monday.

With Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections just a week away, a formidable protest movement has triggered the resignation of the country's cabinet. As clashes between security forces and protesters demanding an end to military rule entered a third day today, the toll rose to at least 24 dead and more than 1,000 wounded. The cabinet resignation is unlikely to placate protesters, who demand the end of military rule.

The atmosphere and determination of the protest movement, anchored in Cairo's Tahrir Square, has become reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February. Protesters are shouting the same chants, simply replacing Mubarak’s name with that of Egypt’s de facto military ruler, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and vow to stay put until the military junta hands power over to a civilian government.

The forces demanding action from SCAF come from across the political spectrum, making it unlikely that the council will be able to end the standoff without making considerable concessions.

“The SCAF has lost legitimacy because of their poor performance,” says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an analyst and researcher. “The only question is how to hand over power promptly, safely, democratically.”

The political chaos in Cairo mirrored the physical chaos on the streets. In mid-evening Al Jazeera reported that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had accepted the cabinet resignation. At around the same time, Reuters reported that the resignations had not been accepted. The military has looked increasingly overtaken by the fast-moving political events. The killing of protesters on Saturday poured gasoline on the situation, and the generals may be wary of making another dangerous mistake.

Why protesters turned out

The clashes began Saturday when police forcibly dispersed a small group that remained and planned to occupy Tahrir after a large demonstration Friday, organized by Islamist forces, to demand a speed transfer of power to civilian rulers. Thousands responded to the police eviction by flooding Tahrir.

Their numbers swelled after police and the military violently attempted to disperse them Saturday, killing one protester in Cairo and another in Alexandria. The movement turned into an outpouring of anger against the SCAF, which took power after Mubarak stepped down but has continued with much of the repression that led to his downfall. 

Protesters are not only angry at military repression, but express the feeling that nothing has changed since the uprising in January that they hoped would better lives. More than ten thousand protesters have turned out to battle security forces, using rocks and Molotov cocktails against the state's tear gas, rubber bullets, birdshot, and sometimes live bullets.

The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most organized group, called on the military council Monday to withdraw police and military from Tahrir Square and stop the violence, hold accountable those who had killed protesters, and commit to a presidential election date by mid-2012. But it has not urged its members to join the protest, instead calling for calm ahead of elections next week. Other political groups, and Nobel laureate and presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, have called for a national unity government to replace the cabinet.

How the stand-off could end

The SCAF has botched its handling of Egypt’s transition period, not least this weekend, when the use of force on protesters over the past three days only increased both their numbers and resolve. Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, political science professor at Cairo University, says it is unclear if the council will handle the current crisis any better. Eventually, to end the demonstrations, it will be forced to offer concessions, he says. The question is how soon and how much.

Two ideas  have been floated – the formation of a national coalition government, or a national consultative council to hold executive power. But neither would likely be accepted by protesters, Prof. Sayyid says.

“I think a cabinet that does not have full powers would not be satisfying to the demonstrators, and also a national consultative council would not be satisfying to them,” says Sayyid, who also teaches at the American University in Cairo. “The only thing that can stop this is for the SCAF to take some serious action to show that it is changing approach.”

Such actions would include ending the military trials of civilians, which the military has used to try more than 12,000 civilians since January, and holding police and soldiers responsible for killing protesters not only this weekend but at a largely Coptic protest on Oct. 9 and on multiple occasions before that.

But most important, the military council could fix a 2012 date for presidential elections. SCAF's current timeline will probably push presidential elections off to 2013. The military council has pledged to stay in power until a new president is elected.

Hisham Kassem, a prominent independent journalist and publisher, says the crisis will end “with elections.”

“[SCAF’s] sell-by date is approaching very quickly, they are lousy at running the country. But look at the political parties as they negotiated for the coalitions for the elections. There is no consensus. A national salvation government would be a disaster,” he says. “

“This ends with elections, as set by the military council, and a presidential election” early-to-mid next year.

Popular frustration with the military, but also with protesters

The military, seen by many Egyptians as the protector of the revolution when it refused to fire on civilians during the uprising early this year, has enjoyed high popularity. Yet the sustained nature of the fresh protests, and the numbers they have drawn, seem to indicate a growing tide of frustration with the military’s political leadership. The crowd in Tahrir is not the core of activists and politicized elites who turned against the military months ago, but includes many ordinary Egyptians, including people who did not participate in the uprising early this year.

Still, public opinion is divided, with many outside the square bitter that the protests are bringing instability to Egypt ahead of elections. “Those protesters are thugs, they are not from the people,” said Hassan Ahmed, a security guard. “They are stopping traffic and looting stores. They want the military to hand over power – to who? We need to have elections first.”

Analysts say the military is unlikely to delay elections set for next week, which would bring the wrath of the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized group in Egypt. Instead, they will likely go forward in an environment of instability, at a time when some Egyptians were already deterred from the polls by fears of violence.

“We will go through the elections, but what's happening in Tahrir will increase the violence in the elections,” says Mr. Kassem, the human rights activist. “The leaders in Tahrir have on their hands the blood of the extra violence of the elections.”

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