Thousands of Egyptians rallied Tuesday for the downfall of Egypt’s military leader, as anger mounts over the army’s handling of a transition from the country’s former autocratic regime.
Five months after a popular uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak, activists fear their revolution is in jeopardy and accuse the ruling military council of keeping an absolute grip on power that blocks the path to democracy.
Protesters have been camping out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and in the canal city of Suez since mass nationwide rallies on Friday to demand political change.
“The people want the fall of the Field Marshall,” chanted demonstrators in Cairo, in reference to Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s longtime defence minister who now heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
“Down, down with the Field Marshall,” thousands chanted in Suez where the army erected barbed wire and formed a wall to block any attempt to reach the strategic Suez Canal.
Tahrir Square was bubbling with energy on Tuesday night, with speakers on podiums and a concert planned, amid tight security overseen by the demonstrators.
The army, which was hailed as heroes at the start of the January 25 uprising for not shooting protesters, has come under fire for using Mubarak-era tactics to stifle dissent and maintain an unchallenged hold on power.
But the council insisted it will not cede control over the transition.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stresses that it will not renounce its role in managing the affairs of the country during this critical time in Egypt’s history,” SCAF member Mohsen al-Fangary said in a speech broadcast on state television.
In a stern address, Fangary warned those who “deviate from the peaceful approach during demonstrations and sit-ins and obstruct the institutions of the state.”
But Fangary’s speech only furthered the protesters’ resolve to pursue their sit-ins, they said.
“They think their warnings will drive us away from Tahrir, they obviously don’t understand the revolution,” said protester Mohammed Hamdy.
The protests — dubbed the revolution’s “second wave” — have put Prime Minister Essam Sharaf under increasing pressure amid accusations he is too weak to face the military junta.
When Sharaf assumed office in March, he was widely celebrated as an ambassador of Tahrir Square, but activists say his months in office have, more than anything, revealed the powerlessness of the cabinet in the face of the military council.
The prime minister scrambled to placate the protesters with two television addresses in since Saturday, offering a series of measures.
On Monday, he announced he would reshuffle his cabinet within a week and provincial governors within a month.
He also set a July 15 deadline for the dismissal of police officers accused of killing protesters in the uprising.
Following a request by Sharaf, the judiciary agreed the trial of former regime officials, including Mubarak, be made public.
Mubarak is in custody in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and is to face trial on August 3, along with his two sons Alaa and Gamal, on charges of corruption and ordering the killing of protesters.
“There are still forces which belong to the old regime that should be removed but, for the moment, the army doesn’t want to do so,” political analyst Hassan Nafaa told a Franco-Egyptian conference on Tuesday.
“We are in a delicate transitional period. It is not clear what the future regime of Egypt will look like,” he said.
Al-Shorouk columnist Wael Qandeel wrote Monday: “The prime minister’s work is carried out in the dark, because no one knows where Essam Sharaf’s role ends and where the military council’s role begins”.
But Fangary insisted Sharaf had the council’s backing, after reports of major tensions between the military and the cabinet.
“Essam Sharaf should either become a real prime minister, with free hands to manage the affairs of the country, or he can save himself and the revolution by stepping down,” Qandeel said.
Activists say the uprising’s central demands — which include an end to military trials of civilians, a speedy and open trial of former regime officials and police officers accused of abuse — have been ignored.
They also want to remove former regime officials from state institutions.
Egypt’s appointment of a new minister of information on Saturday — a controversial post which had been abolished after the uprising — is seen as evidence of the government backtracking on pledges of reform.