Monday, November 21, 2011

Egypt's Civilian Government Submits Offer to Resign

November 21, 2011

Egypt’s Civilian Government Submits Offer to Resign

New York Times

CAIRO — Egypt’s interim prime minister and cabinet offered to resign Monday in the face of a bloody third day of protests, adding to the crisis of legitimacy for the nation’s ruling military council and its faltering effort to oversee a peaceful transition to democracy.

It was unclear whether the ruling military would accept the resignation, news of which was greeted with cheers by tens of thousands of protesters who had crammed into Tahrir Square, epicenter of the Arab Spring uprising, to demand that the military council step aside. A report on state television said that the generals were seeking a potential successor as prime minister.

If accepted, the resignation would bow to the protesters demands as leaders across the spectrum — liberals and Islamists — endorsed a call for a “million man march” Tuesday to demand a new civilian government of national unity. It was unclear if the so-called “national rescue” government would replace or continue to report to the ruling military council.

After a meeting Monday of about two dozen political groups, a top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who attended the event delivered a collective apology for their delay in joining the protesters’ calls for the military council to relinquish its power.

But the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organized political force, and its newly founded political party, later announced that they would not attend the march. It was the latest sign of the group’s equivocation over the protests, which threaten to delay the timing of the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago and which are now scheduled a week from Monday — a vote in which the Brotherhood is poised to reap big gains.

A growing number of political leaders privately acknowledged growing doubts that the elections would come off next Monday. But without the announcement of a new government any postponement of the elections could set off a firestorm, and all parties have called for the elections to proceed as scheduled next week.

In a statement late Monday night the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces called for a meeting without political leaders but said nothing more about its intentions.

As the protests ended their third day and the crowd in Tahrir Square swelled to the tens of thousands, the army and security forces resorted to increasingly lethal violence to hold back a continuing siege of the interior ministry headquarters a few blocks away.

The Egyptian health minister said that 23 people had died and that more than 1,500 been wounded since Sunday morning. Doctors in a field clinic near Tahrir Square and a major hospital reported seeing as many as ten patients killed by live ammunition, an escalation from the tear gas, birdshot and rubber bullets the security forces had previously used, and speaking on condition of anonymity three doctors at the hospital each said that administrators had told them not to disclose the use of live ammunition.

In an unsuccessful bid to mollify the protesters before the elections, the military council announced the promulgation of a new law that could bar members of the former ruling party from running for the new parliament, and if broadly applied its effects could invalidate registered “lists” of candidates in districts across the country.

Even as liberals and Islamists came together to join the protesters demand for a handover of power, new splits emerged over the timetable. Some liberals had hoped that the military rulers would lay down a “bill of rights” style declaration of individual and minority rights to protect against potential infringements after an Islamist victory at the polls; they called for the military to turn over power immediately to a new civilian government, presumably postponing the parliamentary elections.

But the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to gain from early elections because of its organizational advantages, pointedly called for the new unity government to assume power after the parliamentary elections. The Brotherhood had earlier suggested that it was time for the protesters to go home rather than risk jeopardizing the election schedule. A senior Brotherhood leader was chased from Tahrir Square by protesters angry over the group’s equivocation, accusing it of cynically waiting to side with whoever might be the winner of the standoff between the protesters and the military council.

On Monday morning, the thoroughfares of downtown Cairo were littered with stones and other debris from fighting between protesters and the security forces. Witnesses said they had seen the bodies of three protesters wrapped in blankets carried away after they had been hit with live ammunition overnight. An apartment building near Tahrir Square was damaged by a fire sparked when a tear gas canister landed on a third-floor balcony, protesters said.

A representative of the ruling military council, Gen. Said Abbas, visited Tahrir Square on Monday and spoke in a brief news conference, saying the council respected the protesters’ right to peaceful demonstrations. He declared that the security forces had not initiated any violence but only defended themselves, and he insisted — despite a sweep of the square Sunday evening by hundreds of soldiers and police in riot gear — that the security forces had not entered the square.

Asked about the reports of protesters injured by gunfire from security forces, he said the victims were “thugs,” not peaceful demonstrators. The representative told the crowd to consider the economic cost of shutting the central square to traffic and disrupting city life, reminding them of losses this week in the Egyptian stock market.

“There is an invisible hand in the square causing a rift between the army and the people,” he said.

The violence has seemed to reinforce the revolutionary urgency that had returned to the square, and when the army moved to push out the thousands of protesters on Sunday, more than twice as many quickly flooded back.

“This is February 12!” said Abeer Mustafa, a 42-year-old wedding planner, referring to the day after President Mubarak resigned. “We have finally succeeded in reclaiming our revolution.”

The crackdown, including the reported use of live ammunition by troops, elicited condemnation across the political spectrum, joined by voices who had previously taken a more restrained tone toward the military council, from the liberal former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The protests were an eruption of anger that started with a peaceful march by tens of thousands of Islamists on Friday. When security forces tried to clear a small tent city that remained in the square on Saturday, a far more diverse cross section of young people and professionals turned out in support, battling the police in a war of rocks and tear gas. By Sunday, the clashes had spread to at least seven other cities, including the major population centers of Alexandria and Suez.

A makeshift field clinic that protesters had set up in a mosque near Tahrir Square treated a steady stream of hundreds of bloody patients on Sunday, registering at least one death, and doctors said they treated some wounded by live ammunition instead of the rubber bullets and birdshot that the security forces primarily used. After dark, a corpse was paraded on a stretcher through the square as battles continued around the periphery. More than 1,000 people were reported seriously injured over the past two days.

“This is the breaking point we were all waiting for,” said Tarek Salama, a surgeon working in the field hospital. “Getting rid of Mubarak was just the warm-up. This is the real showdown.”

Mayy el Sheikh and Dina Amer contributed reporting. Alan Cowell contributed reporting form London.

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