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EGYPT: ‘One Mubarak Goes, 18 Come In’

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jul 21 2011 (IPS) - Almost six months after the popular uprising that led to the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, the honeymoon between protesters and Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – initially portrayed as a “defender of the revolution” – appears to be over.

Demonstration time at Tahrir Square again. Credit: Adam Morrow/IPS

Demonstration time at Tahrir Square again. Credit: Adam Morrow/IPS

“The people’s confidence in the SCAF, which appears unable or unwilling to address our grievances, has reached an all-time low,” Abdel Rahman Abu Zeid, a spokesman for protesters currently camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, told IPS.

Since Jul. 8, demonstrators have returned en masse to the iconic square – in the hundreds of thousands on certain days – to protest the ruling council’s failure to implement key revolutionary demands.

“If you can’t meet the demands of the revolution… then you should step down,” the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which consists of several protest groups that played a major roles in the recent uprising, told the council last week. “The Egyptian people represent the sole source of authority; they impart authority, and they can take it away.”

The SCAF has governed the country since Mubarak’s departure in February following an 18-day popular uprising in which hundreds were killed.

For one, protesters demand an immediate halt to the use of force by security forces to disperse demonstrations. In a disturbing precedent late last month, hundreds were injured when police used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up a protest in Cairo held by relatives of those killed during the uprising.

“Such naked aggression against protesters, the likes of which have not been seen since the days of the revolution, have infuriated the public,” said Abu Zeid.

Demonstrators also want to see the speedy prosecution of corrupt former regime officials, especially Mubarak and his close associates, and security personnel implicated in killing protesters.

“No one has seen Mubarak in weeks. We don’t even know if he’s in prison,” Sherif Mekawi, a leading member of the liberal Ghad Party, told IPS. “They also say they’re prosecuting the former interior minister, but no one has seen him recently either.”

In early July, an Egyptian court found three former government ministers, all of whom had been particularly close to Mubarak, innocent of corruption charges. The following day, a criminal court in the city of Suez bailed out seven police officers, charged with involvement in killing protesters.

“This apparent lack of accountability has further incensed public opinion and brought demonstrators back to Tahrir Square to register their mounting dissatisfaction,” said Mekawi.

Protesters also demand a halt to the continued referral of civilians to military tribunals – a common practice under the former regime. Since the revolution, hundreds of young protesters have been slapped with jail terms, some of up to five years, by military courts.

“The only ones currently being tried in military courts are protesters, when former regime officials are the ones that should be on trial,” said Mekawi.

At the height of the revolution, Egypt’s armed forces were praised by the public after they ostensibly came out on the side of the protesters. In the months since ‘the people and the army are one’ has been an oft-repeated refrain at many public rallies.

But as chief demands remain unfulfilled, the feelings of camaraderie have noticeably cooled.

“People don’t feel there’s been any real change. The foot-dragging by the military council reminds people of the Mubarak regime,” Khaled Mohamed, 26-year-old university student and active Tahrir protester, told IPS. “We feel like we’ve traded one Mubarak for 18 Mubaraks,” he added, referring to the 18-member SCAF.

Slogans calling for the “fall of the regime” repeated ad nauseam throughout the course of the uprising, have now been replaced in many cases with calls for the “fall of the field-marshal” in reference to SCAF head and longstanding defence minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi.

“The people initially saw Tantawi as a protector of the revolution,” said Mohamed. “But six months on, he now appears to be running the country in the same autocratic way that Mubarak did.”

Protesters, therefore, have also begun calling for the dismissal of the SCAF-appointed transitional government, the replacement of the ruling military council with a civilian council, the removal of all Mubarak-era regional governors, and a “purge” of the judiciary and media of all remnants of the former regime.

“If the SCAF wants to regain the trust of the public, it must comply with all these demands,” said Abu Zeid.

In an unusually strongly-worded statement on Jul. 12, the ruling council stressed its refusal to countenance any attempt to “seize” power. Stating that it would not relinquish its governing role before parliamentary polls were held later this year, the SCAF went on to warn protesters against impeding the functioning of the state and its institutions.

“The tone of the statement was unusually harsh. The council tacitly threatened to break up protests by force,” said Abu Zeid. “This was both unexpected and, for protesters, totally unacceptable.”

In an effort to placate frustrated demonstrators, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf recently announced a handful of concessions.

On Jul. 13, he dismissed more than 500 police officers believed to have been involved in the killing of protesters. He also promised to carry out a wide-ranging cabinet reshuffle, dismiss all Mubarak- appointed regional governors, and televise trials of former regime officials.

On the same day, Sharaf accepted the resignation of assistant prime minister Yehia al-Gamal. And on Monday (Jul. 18), foreign minister Mohamed al-Orabi – appointed by the SCAF only three weeks ago – likewise tendered his resignation.

Protesters, however, rejected the moves as inadequate.

“These measures were merely cosmetic,” said Abu Zeid. “It took Sharaf more than four months to take these simple steps, which he only did under public pressure. He’s lost all credibility.

“We respect the Egyptian Armed Forces as an institution,” Abu Zeid added. “And we will also respect the SCAF – but only if it complies with the people’s demands.”

Protest groups are calling for another million-man demonstration in Tahrir Square on Friday to reiterate their demands.

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