Egyptian protesters calling for an end to army rule clashed with security forces in central Cairo for a fifth night as military pledges for a quicker power transfer to a civilian authority failed to end demonstrations.
United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the “clearly excessive use of force” by police in almost a week of violence that has left at least 35 dead. “Some of the images coming out of Tahrir, including the brutal beating of already subdued protesters, are deeply shocking, as are the reports of unarmed protesters being shot in the head,” Pillay said in a statement posted on the UN’s website today.
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square called for the head of the ruling military council to quit after his televised address to the nation late yesterday. Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi outlined concessions that include holding presidential elections by the end of June and replacing the current Cabinet. He also vowed to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled, starting Nov. 28.
The violence in Cairo and other cities including Alexandria threatens to derail elections and undermine government attempts to secure financing for an economy still struggling to recover from the uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in February. Egypt’s benchmark dollar bonds slumped after Tantawi’s speech, sending the yield to the highest level since January, when the protests began. The turmoil in Egypt and new sanctions on Iran contributed to a rise in oil prices yesterday, the first in four days.
“How can you hold elections on time when the country is on fire?” Emad Gad, an analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said today by telephone. “Do you think people will go out and vote under such circumstances? They will be illegitimate elections if they are held at such a time,” said Gad, who is also a parliamentary candidate.
Tantawi said he had accepted the resignation of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, which will stay in place until a new government is formed. He also said the military was willing to hand over power immediately, “if the people so want, through a referendum.”
Tear Gas, Bullets
Today in Tahrir, chants of “the military must leave” and “freedom, freedom” mingled with the wail of ambulance sirens. Red-eyed protesters, many wearing surgical masks to protect them from tear gas, carried the wounded out of Mohammed Mahmoud street, one of the thoroughfares leading off the plaza that has been the focus of clashes. One man held a white burial cloth, symbolizing his readiness to die, while others plastered stickers that read “martyrs on demand” on their bags and shoulders.
Pillay said she urged authorities to end the “apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition.”
“The whole regime must change,” said Mohammed Kamal, a 58-year-old protester leaning on a cane. “We want a presidential council and a national salvation government.”
Kamal said he doesn’t plan to vote next week. “What elections? This is a joke,” he said, over the din of vendors peddling everything from flags to cotton candy. “It is a farce unfolding in the midst of catastrophic events.”
Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied overnight in Tahrir, which was also the center of protests that led to the ouster of Mubarak. There were fewer people today in the main square, where volunteers swept the streets and stuffed trash bags by the tents that some demonstrators have erected in the plaza.
“When the masses take to the streets, they don’t go back to their homes until their goals are met,” said Rasha Azab, an activist who has been taking part in the rallies. “We realize that our confrontation with the military council is bigger than our confrontation with Mubarak was.”
Others disagreed. “The military’s rule is legitimate,” said Ahmed Aboul Fotouh, a retired banker who said he came to the square to reason with the protesters. He said he will vote for the “Islamic current” next week, without specifying a party. “A revolution is one that builds, not destroys,” he said.
After the military council took over power from Mubarak, it dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution, saying it aimed to hand power to a democratically elected government within six months or when elections are held. Before yesterday’s announcement, no date had been set for presidential elections and a timetable for transition indicated the vote may not be held before 2013.
Egypt’s economy grew 1.8 percent in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, its weakest performance in at least a decade.