Cairo – Egypt's interim military rulers battled a reinvigorated protest movement calling for its ouster Sunday, as thousands of demonstrators forced troops to retreat from Tahrir Square for a second night in a row.
Many compared the breadth and intensity of the new battles for the square — the iconic heart of the Egyptian revolt and the Arab Spring — to the early days of the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak, only this time the target of the protesters’ ire was the ruling military council and its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
The military-led government’s attempts to beat back or squash the protests appeared to only redouble their strength. After using tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot to beat back a day of continuous attacks on the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, hundreds of soldiers and security police in riot gear stormed the square from several directions at once about 5 p.m., raining down rocks and tear gas as they drove thousands of demonstrators out before them.
But after less than half an hour they had retreated, having succeeded only in burning down a few tents in the middle of the square. And after another half an hour, the crowd of protestors had more than doubled, packing the square as ever more demonstrators marched in from all directions, chanting for the end of military rule.
The protests spread to at least seven other cities, including Alexandria and Suez. The Health Ministry said at least three people were killed Sunday, after one died Saturday, and the number of seriously injured grew to over 900. A makeshift field hospital the protestors had set up in a mosque near the square treated a steady stream of hundreds bloodied by birdshot and rubber bullets and recorded at least one of the fatalities.
Despite the chaos, the military-led government said Sunday that it intended to go forward with parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in stages next Monday, though they will not be complete until March, and the military has said it intends to hold power until long after they are finished. Canceling or postponing the elections would be likely ignite an even larger revolt, with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt’s largest and most disciplined political force, taking to the streets.
A spectrum of political organizations, including the Brotherhood and the young liberal leaders of the original revolt against Mubarak, called Sunday for the military to commit to an accelerated schedule for handing power to civilians — either to some imagined crisis government, the lower house of Parliament when it is seated early next year, or to a new president elected as soon as April. At least three prominent liberal parliamentary candidates and some parties declared that they were suspending their campaigns because of the crisis.
But the new revolt against interim military rule appeared even more spontaneous and less organized than the original uprising. There was no sign of leaders and few political movements present in the square, and it was hard to imagine with whom the military could negotiate if it chose to work out a handover of power.
“I saw the revolution being slain, so I had to come,” said Ahmed Hamza, 41, a lawyer, watching the fray. Like many in the square, he vowed to stay until the ruling military council committed to a swift exit from power but also said he feared the generals welcomed the chaos as a pretext to cancel elections.
In a television interview late Saturday night, Gen. Mohsen Fangary, a spokesman for the ruling military council, promised a formal response the next day. He blamed demonstrators for igniting the violence, suggested protestors were “enemies” of Egypt, and he hinted that unnamed satellite news channels — presumably Al Jazeera — had played a role. “The youth are blinded to the reality of the situation,” he said.
Coming two days after a huge Islamist demonstration and just more than a week before the first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, the outpouring of anger was the strongest rebuke yet to the military’s attempts to grant itself permanent governmental powers. And it was a reuniting of Islamist and liberal protest movements that had drifted apart since the early days of the uprising.
This time, instead of chanting for the fall of Mr. Mubarak, the demonstrators were chanting for the fall of the ruling military council that initially presented itself as the revolution’s savior.
“The generals said to us, ‘We are your partners,’ and we believed them,” said Tarek Saaed, 55, a construction safety supervisor who used a cane to walk among the boisterous crowds in the square. “Then the next day we find out they are partners with Mubarak,” he added, calling the day a turning point for Egypt.
The crowd only grew as state news media reported that the military said it would step back from a blueprint it had laid out this month for a lasting political role under the new constitution. Many of the protesters, and some outside observers, argued that the confrontation marked a significant setback to the military.
“The military council now feels that the political street will not accept that the military is going to hold the power for a long time,” argued Mahmoud Shokry, a former Egyptian ambassador and a veteran political insider. “I think the military is going to reconsider the situation once more.”
After pledging to turn over power to civilians by September, the military postponed the handover until after the ratification of a constitution and the election of a president, sometime in 2013 or later. Then, this month, the military-led government put in writing a set of ground rules for a constitution that would have given the military authority to intervene in civilian politics while protecting it from civilian oversight — setting off a firestorm.
“An extremely big mistake,” Mr. Shokry said.
Opposition to those guidelines brought the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group, back to the streets in force Friday as part of a rally of tens of thousands of Islamists and a smaller contingent of liberals calling for an end to military rule.
In response, the military-led interim government announced Saturday morning that its constitutional guidelines would no longer be binding, only advisory. The government also revised the rules to say that the only role of the armed forces was protecting the country and “preserving its unity,” rather than the broader writ to guard Egypt’s “constitutional legitimacy.” Many, especially Islamists, believed the phrase had granted the authority to intervene at will in the civilian government.
In another bid to placate the protesters, the revisions also explicitly place the military under civilian government. “Like other state institutions,” the new text declares, the military should “abide by the constitutional and legislative regulations.”
“The president of the republic is the supreme commander of the armed forces and the minister of defense is the general commander of the armed forces,” the revised declaration said.
Still, the military has not agreed to cede power once a Parliament is elected, or while the constitution is being drafted. Nor has it backed away from its right to set other nominating procedures for the constitutional drafting committee or to impose other rules on the final text.