Egypt's Military Vows Power Transfer to Civilians

Sunday, 13 February 2011 09:12 By Kareem Fahim and David D Kirkpatrick, The New York Times News Service | Report | name.

Egypt
Egyptian civilians and military celebrate the announcement that President Hosni Mubarak is stepping down in Cairo, on Feb. 11, 2011. (Photo: Ed Ou / The New York Times)

Cairo — A new era dawned in Egypt on Saturday as this nation of 80 million — and hundreds of millions beyond its borders — began to absorb the fact that an 18-day mass movement of largely nonviolent protest brought down a nearly 30-year military dictatorship and renewed the country’s lease on life.

Within hours of the news that Hosni Mubarak had resigned as president, Egypt’s new army leadership quickly sought to project its control and assuage fears about military rule, at home and abroad. At the same time, opposition leaders took steps toward asserting their own role in the country’s future.

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In an announcement broadcast on state television on Saturday, an army spokesman said that Egypt would continue to abide by all of its international and regional treaties — which include its peace treaty with Israel — and that the current civilian leadership would manage the country’s affairs until the formation of a new government, without giving a timetable. The spokesman said “a peaceful transition of power” would allow “an elected civilian state to rule the country for building a free democratic state.”

Some current members of the government had been barred from traveling abroad, The Associated Press reported, quoting an official at the Cairo airport.

The army spokesman urged citizens to cooperate with the police, after weeks of civil strife, and urged a force stained by accusations of abuse and torture to be mindful of the department’s new slogan: “The police in the service of the people.”

As the impact of the revolution settled in, some members of the movement that toppled Mr. Mubarak vowed to continue their protests, saying that all their demands had not yet been met — including an end to the emergency law that allows detention without charges, and the release of political prisoners. At a news conference, a group called the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution said it had not yet talked with the military and would lay out a roadmap for the future. It also said protesters should leave Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the new Egypt, and return next Friday to honor those who had died in the protests.

People across the Arab world celebrated the end of the dictatorship in the largest Arab country after a similar uprising in Tunisia last month, but it was less clear if they would be able to follow their examples.

In Algeria, where an antigovernment demonstration had been called, several thousand protesters headed to the center of the capital, Algiers, and were met by police officers in riot gear, The A.P. reported. Dozens of opposition members were reported to have been arrested.

Police officers with clubs beat antigovernment protesters in Yemen as they marched on the Egyptian Embassy there, demanding the resignation of the president, Reuters reported.

In Egypt, the tone of the state media quickly reflected the country’s altered reality.

“The People Overthrew the Regime,” read the headline in Al Ahram, the flagship state-owned national newspaper and former government mouthpiece, borrowing a line from the protest movement. Another article noted that Switzerland had frozen the assets of Mr. Mubarak, and those of his aides. On state television an announcer referred to the “Youth Revolution.”

Mr. Mubarak, 82, left without comment for his home by the Red Sea in Sharm el Sheik on Friday. His departure overturned, after six decades, the Arab world’s original secular dictatorship. He was toppled by a radically new force in regional politics — a mainly secular, largely nonviolent, youth-led democracy movement that brought Egypt’s liberal and Islamist opposition groups together for the first time under its banner.

“One by one the protesters withstood each weapon in the arsenal of the Egyptian autocracy — first the heavily armed riot police, then a ruling party militia and finally the state’s powerful propaganda machine.

Mr. Mubarak’s fall removed a bulwark of American foreign policy in the region. The United States, its Arab allies and Israel are now pondering whether the Egyptian military, which has vowed to hold free elections, will give way to a new era of democratic dynamism or to a perilous lurch into instability or Islamist rule.

President Obama, in a televised address Friday, praised the Egyptian revolution. “Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day,” he said. “It was the moral force of nonviolence — not terrorism and mindless killing — that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed Islamist movement that until 18 days ago was considered Egypt’s only viable opposition, said it was merely a supporting player in the revolt.

“We participated with everyone else and did not lead this or raise Islamic slogans so that it can be the revolution of everyone,” said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, a spokesman for the Brotherhood. “This is a revolution for all Egyptians; there is no room for a single group’s slogans, not the Brotherhood’s or anybody else.”

The Brotherhood has said it will not field a candidate for president or seek a parliamentary majority in the expected elections.

The Mubarak era ended without any of the stability and predictability that were the hallmarks of his tenure. Western and Egyptian officials had expected Mr. Mubarak to leave office on Thursday and irrevocably delegate his authority to Vice President Omar Suleiman, finishing the last six months of his term with at least his presidential title intact.

But whether because of pride or stubbornness, Mr. Mubarak instead spoke once again as the unbowed father of the nation, barely alluding to a vague “delegation” of authority.

The resulting disappointment enraged the Egyptian public, sent a million people into the streets of Cairo on Friday morning and put in motion an unceremonious retreat at the behest of the military he had commanded for so long.

“Taking into consideration the difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of president of the republic and has tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state’s affairs,” Mr. Suleiman said in a brief televised statement.

It is now not clear what role Mr. Suleiman, whose credibility plummeted over the past week as he stood by Mr. Mubarak and even questioned Egypt’s readiness for democracy, will have in the new government.

The transfer of power leaves the Egyptian military in charge of this nation, facing insistent calls for fundamental democratic change and open elections. Hours before Mr. Suleiman announced Mr. Mubarak’s exit, the military had signaled its takeover with a communiqué that appeared to declare its solidarity with the protesters.

Read on state television by an army spokesman, the communiqué declared that the military — not Mr. Mubarak, Mr. Suleiman or any other civilian authority — would ensure the amendment of the Constitution to “conduct free and fair presidential elections.”

“The armed forces are committed to sponsor the legitimate demands of the people,” the statement declared, and the military promised to ensure the fulfillment of its promises “within defined time frames” until authority could be passed to a “free democratic community that the people aspire to.”

It pledged to remove the reviled emergency law “as soon as the current circumstances are over” and further promised immunity from prosecution for the protesters, whom it called “the honest people who refused the corruption and demanded reforms.”

Egyptians ignored the communiqué, as they have most official pronouncements of the Mubarak government, until the president’s resignation was announced. Then they hugged, kissed and cheered the soldiers, lifting children on tanks to get their pictures taken. “The people and the army are one hand,” they chanted.

Whether the military will subordinate itself to a civilian democracy or install a new military dictator will be impossible to know for months. Military leaders will inevitably face pressure to deliver the genuine transition that protesters did not trust Mr. Mubarak to give them.

Yet it may also seek to protect the enormous political and economic privileges it accumulated during Mr. Mubarak’s reign. And the army has itself been infused for years with the notion that Egypt’s survival depends on fighting threats, real and imagined, from foreign enemies, Islamists, Iran and the frustrations of its own people.

Throughout the revolt, the army stood passively on the sidelines as the police or armed Mubarak loyalists fought the protesters centered in Tahrir Square.

Now the military, which owns vast commercial interests here but has not fought in decades, must defuse demonstrations, quell widespread labor unrest, and rebuild a shattered economy and security forces. Its top official, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 75, served for decades as a top official of Mr. Mubarak’s government. And its top uniformed official, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafez Enan, has not spoken publicly.

Egypt’s opposition has said for weeks that it welcomed a military role in securing the country, ideally under a two- to five-member presidential council with only one military member. And the initial reaction to the military takeover was ecstatic.

“Welcome back,” said Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who administered the Facebook group that helped start the revolt.

Mr. Ghonim, who was detained for 12 days in blindfolded isolation by the Mubarak government as it tried to stamp out the revolt, helped protesters turn the tide in a propaganda war against the state media this week, when he described his captivity in an emotional interview on a satellite television station.

Dr. Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, 32, a transplant surgeon who was among the small group of organizers who guided the revolution, said the leaders had decided to let the protests unwind on their own. “We are not going to ask the people to stay in the square or leave — it is their choice,” he said. “Even if they leave, any government will know that we can get them to the streets again in a minute.”

Amr Ezz, 27, another of the revolt’s young leaders, said that calling the revolution a military coup understated its achievement. “It is the people who took down the president and the regime and can take down anyone else,” he said. “Now the role of the regular people has ended and the role of the politicians begins. Now we can begin negotiations with the military in order to plan the coming phase.”

The opposition groups taking part in the protest movement had previously settled on a committee led by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat and Nobel laureate, to negotiate with the army if Mr. Mubarak resigned.

Egyptian politicians were already beginning to position themselves to run for office. Amr Moussa, one of the country’s most popular public figures, resigned as head of the Arab League, and an aide, Hesham Youssef, confirmed that Mr. Moussa was considering seeking office.

Anthony Shadid, Mona El-Naggar and Liam Stack contributed reporting. 

This article "Egyptian Military: Country Will Keep Current Leadership, Adhere to Treaties" originally appeared at The New York Times.

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Last modified on Tuesday, 15 February 2011 03:42