Conflict & Justice

After clashes in Cairo, Egypt's military says it will hand over power early


Egyptian anti-military protesters throw stones during clashes with unidentified attackers in Cairo on May 2, 2012.


Khaled Desouki

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt’s ruling military council will transfer power to a civilian government a month earlier than planned, a member of the council told reporters today. The transfer is now scheduled for May 24, the day of the country’s first-ever free presidential election.

The announcement came after a night of clashes left 11 people dead in the heart of Cairo.

Battles between anti-government protesters and armed plainclothes assailants outside central Cairo’s defense ministry prompted the country’s major political forces, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to boycott a scheduled meeting with the transitional council, known as the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), earlier today.

Also in response to the bloodshed — which left more than 100 injured in the early hours of Wednesday morning — at least four presidential candidates, including front-runner Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh and the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsi, suspended their election campaigns.

By late afternoon in Cairo, the fighting between the two sides had stopped. Military armored personnel carriers and riot police had arrived at the scene and formed a barrier between protesters and the attackers.

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The Brotherhood, Egypt’s most formidable political force, along with other political groups, called for a protest on Friday to “take revenge for the blood of Egyptians.”

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which holds a majority in parliament, released a statement that cast the violence at the ministry as part of “an ongoing attempt to disrupt the handover of power within the scheduled timeframe.”

SCAF, which seized power during Egypt’s popular revolt last year, has presided over the nation’s turbulent transition to democratic rule. Its army generals had earlier promised to cede full power to a civilian government on June 30, following the election of a new civilian president.

But secular activists and Islamist groups alike have grown suspicious of SCAF’s intentions, accusing them of purposely creating a security vacuum in a bid to derail the democratic process that threatens to strip the military of some of its privileges.

Recently, the Brotherhood-led Islamists and SCAF’s generals have quarreled over the creation of a new cabinet and the make-up of a new constitutional committee, which both sides want to see reflect their own interests.

Hisham Kassem, an opposition activist during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak and co-founder of Egypt’s first independent daily newspaper, Al Masry Al Youm, said the recent violence would likely “delay considerably” the writing of Egypt’s new constitution.

“No one can really read the situation,” he said. “But there is anger in the streets.”

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An uptick in political violence has plagued Egypt since the uprising that ousted Mubarak last year, during which security forces either battled protesters or watched from the sidelines.

The sit-in outside the defense ministry in Cairo began on Saturday, initiated by hardline Salafi Islamist supporters of conservative Islamic presidential candidate, Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail.

Ismail was disqualified from the race early last month, along with nine other candidates, after it was revealed that his mother held US citizenship. Egypt’s election law requires that its president have two Egyptian-only parents.

Ismail’s followers, many of them bearded, announced they would stage a sit-in in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square to protest the decision, made by the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission.

They then moved the demonstration to the defense ministry to protest military rule. There, young secular-liberal activists joined the Islamists, bringing the number of demonstrators to roughly 2,000 to 3,000 each evening.

But just after midnight on Sunday, groups of plainclothes thugs, or “baltageyya” — a term used to describe regime-hired goons who suppress political dissent — attacked the protesters with rocks, Molotov cocktails, knives and birdshot.

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Sporadic clashes between the protesters on one side and the armed plain-clothed assailants and local residents on the other, continued throughout the week.

But Wednesday morning’s battle proved to be the most deadly. Many protesters said security forces used live ammunition against them.

Egyptian activists circulated on Facebook and Twitter photos of bloodied protesters being treated in makeshift clinics or ferried away to hospitals on the backs of motorbikes.

“There have been reports of machine gun fire, but I think it's mostly citizens resorting to criminality out of frustration,” said Kassem, the opposition activist.

In its statement to reporters today, SCAF’s chief of staff, Sami Anan, gave no indication the council planned to postpone the presidential elections due to the recent violence.

But he also failed to specify that if the elections did indeed call for a run-off, scheduled for June 16 and 17, it would be forced to wait to transfer power until then.

Last November, in the week leading up to Egypt’s first free parliamentary elections, violent clashes between police and protestors near the interior ministry left 40 dead.

The elections went forward, however, with no serious reports of violence.

Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt.