Adam Plowright, AFP
Last updated: 27 November, 2011

Egypt on edge ahead of elections

Egypt’s army rulers, protesters and future political leaders were locked in a fierce power struggle on Sunday that set the country on edge ahead of the first elections since its revolution.

Egyptians go to the polls on Monday to cast their first votes for a new parliament after the end of the 30-year rule of strongman Hosni Mubarak, forced from power last February in one of the seminal moments of the Arab Spring.

The run-up to voting in the cultural heart of the Arab world and region’s most populous country has been marred by violence and fears of chaos as the army, protesters and new political figures jostle for influence.

Protesters have again occupied Tahrir Square, epicentre of the mass protests that drove Mubarak from power, but this time they want the resignation of the new military rulers who stepped in to fill the void left by his departure.

Thousands gathered on Sunday morning ahead of a planned “million-person march” called by The Revolution Youth Coalition to reject a 78-year-old caretaker prime minister appointed by the army.

“Down with the military!” shouted a group of young men gathered on the edge of the square underneath a lamppost from which an effigy dressed in army green was hanging by the neck.

Feeding the anger of those assembled in Tahrir, many of whom carried visible injuries from last week’s unrest, a 19-year-old demonstrator was crushed to death on Saturday by a police truck outside the cabinet office.

The demonstrators fear that Egypt’s temporary military rulers are looking to consolidate their influence and too quick to resort to Mukarak-era tactics of violence and repression when faced with opposition.

“They don’t want to give back power,” said 18-year-old student Raghda, who was visiting the square before the afternoon demonstration.

The generals, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, have pushed back the original timetable for handing over power to a civilian government and demanded a final say on all legislation concerning the army in the future.

Outside the square, the political leaders expected to shape the democratic future of the country of over 80 million people are locked in a fight for power with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

In an effort to resolve the crisis, Tantawi called a meeting with all political party leaders and future presidential candidates, but it was boycotted by several leading figures.

Tantawi warned on Sunday that no one would be allowed to pressure the armed forces and asked senior political leaders Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, and ex-Arab League chief Amr Mussa for support.

“We are faced with enormous challenges and we will not allow any individual or party to pressure the armed forces,” he told reporters, asking that ElBaradei and Mussa “support the government of Kamal al-Ganzuri.”

Ganzuri, a 78-year-old Mubarak-era premier, was appointed last week.

The violence over the past week, which has seen police use live ammunition and tear gas on protesters, has cast a pall over the start of voting that was intended to usher in a new democratic era.

Also on Sunday, the influential Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, expected to be the biggest party in the new parliament, said it should form a new government if it emerges as the largest parliamentary bloc.

“If the government is not representative of parliament, the assembly will block all its decisions,” spokesman Mahmud Ghozlan told AFP.

There is great uncertainty over how the new parliament, to be elected in stages over the next six weeks, will function because of a lack of clarity from SCAF and the legal limbo until a new constitution is written.

The unrest has led to calls for the elections — spread in three stages over six weeks in a complicated process — to be delayed because of deteriorating security and the threat of boycotts.

Two days of voting from Monday will take place in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria as well as Fayum, Luxor, Port Said, Damietta, Kafr el-Sheikh and the Red Sea province.

Other cities and regions follow on December 14 and January 3.