Egypt’s ruling military and the revolutionaries who demand they immediately step down battled for a third day in the streets on Sunday — and competed fiercely for the support of a broader public that has grown tired of turmoil since the fall of Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago.
The generals appear to be winning the fight for the public, despite a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters around Cairo’s Tahrir Square using a roughness that rivals even that of Mubarak’s widely hated police force.
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The protesters have tried to drum up Egyptians’ anger at the military by spreading videos and photos of military police savagely beating young men and women to the ground with sticks and truncheons — and the resonant scene of a woman in a conservative headscarf being stripped half naked by soldiers who stomp on her chest.
But so far their efforts to win public sympathy don’t seem to be gaining traction in the face of the military’s campaign to depict the crowds of hundreds in the streets as hooligans and vandals, not the idealistic activists who succeeded in bringing down Mubarak. At least 10 protesters have been killed and 441 others wounded in the three days of violence, according to the Health Ministry.
“The military has failed in everything except for its stunning success in making people hate the revolution, its history and its revolutionaries,” prominent columnist Ibrahim Eissa wrote in an editorial in the independent pro-revolution newspaper, Al-Tahrir.
Led by a general who served for 20 years as Mubarak’s defense minister, the military has been methodically seeking to discredit the revolutionaries, accusing them of illegally receiving foreign funds and being part of a plot hatched abroad to destabilize Egypt. The generals have in the meantime sought to portray themselves as key players in the 18-day revolt that toppled Mubarak’s 29-year rule and hence have earned the right to rule.
In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the ruling military council on Sunday called the clashes part of a “conspiracy” against Egypt. It said its forces had the right to defend the “property of the great people of Egypt.”
Seeking to depict the protesters as hooligans — and apparently to counter the widely published images of protesters being beaten or dragged on the ground — it also posted on the page footage of young men throwing rocks at a basement window of the parliament building and of at least one man trying to set the place ablaze.
Polling station in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
The generals’ campaign plays on Egyptians’ frustration with continued instability and economic woes since Mubarak’s fall. Many are now more focused on the multistage parliamentary elections that began last month and continue through March. Islamist parties have so far overwhelmingly dominated the vote, with liberals and secular parties far behind.
That trend continued with the announcement Sunday of results from the second of three rounds of voting, held last week. Egypt's two leading Islamist parties said their separate party lists secured about three-quarters of votes, thus extending their lead.
A source from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said it was on track to win about 40% of votes for party lists, based on results from most districts.
A spokesman for the ultra-conservative Salafi al-Nour Party said its list received about 35% of votes.
In the first round of the six-week poll, the FJP won about 37% of votes for lists and Nour secured about 24%.
The poll, held over six weeks, is the first since Mubarak was ousted in February. Official results have not been released but party representatives watch the count and their predictions after the first round were broadly accurate.
The third and final round of voting takes place in January.
Mismanaging transition period
The Islamists have been staying clear of the recent violence, fearing that they could jeopardize their electoral gains by taking part in the protests. Their stance has prompted many activists to accuse them of political opportunism.
The military has meanwhile been using the state media and sympathetic private TV stations to market an image of itself as the protector of the nation, filling its statements with patriotic rhetoric and grave warnings if turmoil persists.
The revolutionaries who led the protests against Mubarak accuse the military of mismanaging the transition since then, of seeking to hold on to power and of using the same autocratic ways as the ousted leader. They demand that the military hand over power to civilians immediately — and some have begun demanding that presidential elections scheduled for the middle of next year be moved up to January to pick a civilian head of state to take the generals’ place.
“The military is looking down at us and handling everything from a security perspective,” said Shady el-Ghazali Harb, a prominent activist and an icon of the anti-Mubarak uprising. “It is trying to make the point that its way of handling things is what will be applied and nothing else.”
The latest deadly clashes began Friday, when one of several hundred peaceful protesters staging a sit-in outside the Cabinet offices near parliament was detained and beaten by troops. The protesters began their sit-in three weeks ago to demand that the military immediately step down.
In Sunday’s clashes, protesters and troops battled on two main streets off Tahrir Square, trading volleys of stones and firebombs around barriers that the military set up to block the two central avenues. The army also used water canons.
One of the streets is site of a research center set up during the three-year occupation of Egypt by France in the late 18th century. The building was almost completely gutted by a fire which broke out during the height of the clashes on Saturday, when troops on its roof and on other nearby rooftops hurled rocks down on protesters below.
Protesters, who blame the fire on the troops, have been trying to salvage valuable books and documents from the center, whose two-story building is now in danger of collapsing after its roof caved in.
Activists have flooded social network sites and sympathetic media with photos and video from the troops’ brutal assaults the past two days.
The photo of the woman protester half-stripped by soldiers ran on the front page of the Al-Tahrir newspaper, emblazoned with a headline in red, “Liars,” referring to repeated denials by the military council and military-appointed Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri that no force or live ammunition were used against the protesters.
The presenter of a political talk show on a private TV station sarcastically praised the soldiers for their bravery in wrestling the woman down.
“She is more of a man than 300,000 men put together, including me,” said Youssef al-Hussein on ONTV.
Other widely circulating footage show an army officer firing a pistol at protesters — though it is not clear whether he was using live ammunition — and soldiers dragging women by the hair and ferociously beating, kicking and stomping on protesters cowering on the ground.
Still, many Egyptians complain the revolutionaries have gone too far and that, almost a year after ousting Mubarak, they should now go home and let the military run the country or wait for the next parliament to decide the country’s future.
Such sentiments are not surprising given that the military has been the most powerful institution in Egypt since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy.
Nearly 60 years later, the military continues to have the last word on policies, a position of power that has left many activists not entirely certain that the generals who succeeded Mubarak would voluntarily return to their barracks.
“The military council uses every opportunity to show itself as the land’s strongest institution,” said Mohammed Abbas, an activist who defected from the Muslim Brotherhood to side with youth groups more active in protests. “We are making it easier for the generals by our divisions and isolation.”
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