Egypt: New protests push for change, army cracks down

April 9, 2011
Egptians face down security forces.

The Egyptian army has violently cracked down on pro-democracy protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on the night of April 8, said the next day.

Medical sources said two protesters were killed and the health ministry said 71 were hurt.

Protesters were demanding greater changes from the interim government that took over after dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in February, including demands that Mubarak be made to stand trial.

Protesters re-occupied Tahrir Square on April 9, said.

The crackdown came after Egyptians voted overwhelmingly ratify constitutional changes proposed by a judicial panel appointed by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on March 21.

Seventy seven percent voted in favour of the amendments, with a voter turn out of 41%. Among other things, it limits the terms a president can serve to two, lasting four years.

It included a clause setting out that after new parliamentary elections are held, a consistent assembly be set up to redraft a new constitution, which would be subject to another referendum.

Much of the leadership of the mass movement that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak called for a no vote. This included the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution (CYR), as well as various liberal and nationalist parties.

Two figures widely tipped to run for the Egyptian presidency, Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, criticised the amendments. They called for the a new constitution to be written before upcoming elections in order to establish proper regulations.

Powerful, established political groups argued for a yes vote. These included the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party (NDP), the old ruling party under Mubarak.

This appeared to be for opportunist reasons. A yes vote would pave the way for elections in six months time, favouring established parties. Many revolutionary forces opposed the plan, as it does not allow enough time for new political forces emerging out of the struggle against Mubarak to organise themselves.

Many well-known Islamic preachers also called for a yes vote, some of whom used Friday prayers to gain support for supporting the amendments.

However, the reformist wing of the Muslim brotherhood joined calls for a no vote. This wing is mostly made up of Muslim Brotherhood youth that took part in the mass movement to overthrow Mubarak.

Since the fall of Mubarak, ruptures have emerged in the Muslim Brotherhood, one of Egypt’s largest political forces.

Muslim Brotherhood youth activist Mohamed Osman told Ahram Online on April 4: “Some of the youth within the organisation have a more progressive vision than that of the leadership.

“We could have considered splitting away from the Brotherhood, but we would have been left very weak like others who split before us and attempted to form other groups.

“We think it is more effective to stay and push for reform from within.”

In Cairo, the no vote was 39% — reflecting the greater strength of revolutionary forces in the capital.

Three days after the referendum, the new Egyptian cabinet introduced a new law criminalising strikes and protests.

The new law would punish with imprisonment or a fines of between 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($7990) and 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($15,980) “all those who during the state of emergency call for demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins, or gatherings, or participate in any of the above, leading to the impediment or the obstruction of any of the state institutions or public authorities from performing their role”.

The 30-year-old state of emergency remains in place despite the overthrow of Mubarak.

The new law provoked a return to mass demonstrations, something which had not occurred since Tahrir Square was cleared of all protesters on March 9.

The CYR called for a demonstration on April 1 to “Save the Revolution”. Tens of thousands of people took part.

The protest made five demands the CYR said it intended to force on the post-Mubarak interim government.

The demands were: the urgent and speedy trial for corrupt former leaders; an urgent and speedy procedures to return of stolen money; tough sentences for those who took part in killing protesters during the anti-Mubarak uprising; the liberation of national television and newspapers from control by the former regime; the liberation of Egypt’s institutions from the remains of NDP and state security agents.

The New York Times reported on April 1 that Mohammad el-Qassas, a leader of the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, said at the rally: “The military council is inexplicably slow in responding to our demands … Protests and popular pressure must return, because they are only the real method of realising the people’s demands.”

The NYT said the chants that erupted on the square included “The people want the fall of the field marshal”, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the military council and a Mubarak confidant.

On March 29, it was announced that Mubarak was being placed under house arrest, along with his family. The Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum showed pictures of the mansion, complete with luxury swimming pool and beach access, in the resort of Sharm el Sheik, to which Mubarak is confined.

This led one protester at the rally to tell the NYTS: “Mubarak is still fishing in Sharm, as if nothing happened.”

Despite the post-Mubarak regime frustrating many popular demands, one immediate impact of the revolution is that Egypt will take a more independent foreign policy — particularly with regards to Israel.

The Jewish Chronicle said on April 7 that Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Al-Arabi said that “while Egypt remains committed to the peace accords it signed with Israel, they did not mean that the two countries should have warm relations”.

The website Bikyamasr said on April 3 that the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces had announced that 14 Palestinian detainees would be released immediately from Egyptian prison. They were jailed under Mubarak’s regime.

For his part, El-Baradei told Al-Watan: “In the case of a future attack by Israel in Gaza, as President of Egypt, I would open the Rafah crossing and examine ways to implement a Pan-Arab defence agreement.”

The Chronicle quoted one senior Israeli diplomat as saying: “Losing Mubarak was tragic. Let’s hope that the military can hold on to their influence for as long as possible, but what we are hearing from the opposition is very worrying.”

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