Middle East

Egyptian protesters no longer trust the ruling generals

Protesters throw stones at riot police near Tahrir Square 21 November 2011
Image caption Egyptian protesters are angry at the army's handling of the transition to civilian rule

During the excitement that followed the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak back in February, Egyptian protesters cheered the military as it took control.

"The army and the people are [united in] one hand," they cheered. Soldiers were given sweets and flowers and hoisted children onto their tanks to pose for photographs.

Now many revolutionaries feel that such enthusiasm was naive and their celebrations were premature.

Months of anger over the military's handling of the process of transition to civilian rule erupted at the weekend, leading to deadly clashes in Tahrir Square.

"Why do the security forces attack people who simply want their rights? Do they just want to be destructive?" asks Amr Badr, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood youth, who joined the protest camp on Saturday.

Image caption Amani Saleh says the protesters will remain in Tahrir Square until the military rulers go

"Every time the security forces advance towards the square, we push them back," he adds.

"The military and the police killed a lot of people. We are suffering a lot. They keep firing this tear gas so that nobody can breathe," says an activist, Amani Saleh, as she wipes her eyes.

She insists that demonstrators will remain in their symbolic location in the heart of Cairo for as long as it takes.

"We want democracy. We will never leave our country like this. We will stay until they go and we get our freedom," she says.


Many in the crowd see the ruling generals as little more than an extension of the former regime.

They point out they were all close allies of Mr Mubarak, appointed by him. The head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), Field Marshal Hussein Muhammad Tantawi was his defence minister for two decades.

"Tantawi out" and "illegitimate" are now regular cries, adapted and borrowed from this year's uprising, that are being used by the demonstrators.

Image caption Islamists do not want the army to keep special veto powers

This round of confrontations began with a large rally on Friday dominated by Islamists - who expect to do well in forthcoming parliamentary elections.

They denounced a bid by the military-backed interim cabinet to lay down constitutional principles that would preserve special powers for the army after the handover to civilian rule. These would give the military veto power over a new constitution and prevent scrutiny of its vast budget.

Several political groups, such as the 6 April Youth Movement, which helped galvanise Egyptians during the 25 January revolution, have also joined the protests which have spread to other major Egyptian cities.

With speculation that the current timetable could push a presidential election back to early 2013, they are calling for a vote no later than next April.

There are also demands for a national salvation government to replace Scaf and an immediate investigation into the latest violence.

"It's very simple, we want a clear roadmap for the transition of power which we have been calling for since 11 February. This must include a timetable for the presidential elections," says one protester, Tamer Abbas, who works as a management consultant.

"We need to see an emergency cabinet which can save the situation and we need an apology."

'Invisible forces'

For its part, the ruling military council maintains that it is sticking by its plan to open the first parliamentary polls on 28 November.

As ever, some officials are blaming "invisible forces" for the current troubles and said they have the right to implement security measures in Tahrir Square, particularly with ongoing attempts to attack the interior ministry.

According to Sameh Saif al-Yazal, head of the Al-Gomhoreya Institute for Security Studies in Egypt, the silent majority of Egyptians still supports the military.

"The fact is that we are a nation of some 85,000,000. We see a few thousand people are leading this kind of aggression. Most people want to see more respect for the government and police force," he says.

He stresses that the military is currently not doing the job that it was set up to do and does not seek a political role.

"This is absolutely incorrect information. I guarantee that the military and Scaf have not got any ambition to keep power," he says. "They have been forced into politics. After this period is over, they want to go back to their normal job and return to their barracks."

While the armed forces may want to retreat behind the scenes, aware that their public image is being tarnished, they also face a clear dilemma.

A true transition to democracy must inevitably mean yielding authority to a civilian.

Since the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, all of Egypt's four presidents have been military men. They have allowed the military to develop major business assets and political power - with many provincial governors and public officials coming from within its ranks.

It is this essential contradiction between its own interests and the role it was asked to assume that made the armed forces ill-suited to the mantle they took on as "guarantors of the revolution".