Cairo - The Egyptian military moved Wednesday to end a fifth day of clashes between police and protesters that left at least 31 dead, in a confrontation that has plunged the Arab world’s most populous country into crisis and underscored the divide between demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the country’s military rulers.
The army dispatched armored vehicles and troops to separate the two sides, in a bid to halt clashes that wounded hundreds and cast a haze of tear gas over the iconic square. The attempt worked for a time, but after 90 minutes of relative calm, the mayhem resumed. In the chaos, it was unclear which side returned first to the fighting that has pitted police armed with tear gas and guns against rock-throwing protesters.
“They are thugs,” shouted one protester after a new round of tear gas canisters was fired. “I swear to God, they are thugs.”
The demonstrators who took to the square again last week have demanded that the country’s de facto ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi resign, and the military council he heads turn over power in the country to a civilian government.
“The only thing that’s going to end this is the field marshal stepping down,” said Karim Ahmed, a pharmacist helping at a makeshift clinic near the clashes on Wednesday.
In trying for a truce, according to television reports, the government was apparently hoping that the crowd would be more willing to accept the authority of the soldiers than the loathed security forces.
Clerics from al-Azhar, Egypt’s foremost institution of Islamic scholarship, and doctors joined the soldiers on the front line in an attempt to enforce a truce. Egyptian television broadcast footage of the two sides separated by a coil of barbed wire.
The government has been struggling to restore control after days of the biggest unrest since President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power nine months ago. A deal struck Tuesday between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military centered on an agreement to hold a presidential election by late June.
The crowd in the square roared its disapproval when the deal was announced at 8 p.m. Tuesday, fighting spiked on the avenue leading to the Interior Ministry, and the number of protesters continued to swell.
Unlikely to satisfy the public demands for the military to leave power, the deal may have driven a new wedge into the opposition, reopening a divide between the seething public and the political elite, between liberals and Islamists and, as events unfolded, among the Islamists themselves.
“We refuse it, and the square has refused it already,” said Islam Lotfy, a former leader of the youth wing of the Muslim Brotherhood who was expelled from the organization with a group of others for starting a centrist political party. “They did not offer anything new. They are just bargaining with the people.”
Just five days ago, the Muslim Brotherhood kicked off a wave of protests against the military’s increasingly explicit attempts to decree for itself special powers and protections under the future constitution. But when a heavy-handed crackdown on demonstrators ignited a far broader and more violent backlash against the military’s power grab, Brotherhood leaders sent mixed signals about whether to join the swelling protests.
And while other political groups called for a huge demonstration on Tuesday, the Brotherhood ordered its members to stay away for fear of jeopardizing elections as the violence hit a peak.
For the military and the Brotherhood, the deal was the closest embrace yet in the off-again-on-again partnership since the revolution between the country’s two most powerful institutions — reprising roles played out under Mr. Mubarak, who outlawed, but tolerated, the Brotherhood during his three decades in power.
For Egyptian liberals, the open deal between the two most powerful and organized forces in the nation raised fears of being caught between groups at odds with their goals: a military reluctant to submit to democratic oversight, and an Islamist movement with a potentially narrow view of individual freedoms.
“Pessimists fear the Saudi scenario,” Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal activist, said recently, referring to the possibility of imposing strict Islamic moral codes and a harshly undemocratic government.
The agreement was worked out in a meeting held by Gen. Sami Enan, a top leader of the military council, who invited all of the major political parties and their leaders. Most liberal parties and leaders, including the presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei, declined to attend, as did the moderate former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, another presidential contender. All said that negotiating with the generals would confer legitimacy on their authority and that the solution to the crisis should come from the protesters in the street.
Of the roughly 10 parties and leaders that met with General Enan, the Brotherhood was easily the most influential. For the Brotherhood, the accord promises to achieve a critical goal, by beginning the first parliamentary elections in the post-Mubarak era on Monday, as scheduled; the Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party is poised to reap big gains from its advantages in outreach and organizing. And with those gains in the new Parliament, the Brotherhood would be able to help shape the writing of a constitution.
For the military, the deal would allow it to retain unfettered authority at least until late June. Many liberals and Islamists had grown concerned in recent months about the military’s increasingly overt effort to preserve a decisive role for itself in politics far into the future.
The military had pledged in March to hold a presidential election by September, but later it said that the presidential election would come only after the election of a Parliament, the formation of a constitutional assembly and the ratification of a new constitution — a process that could stretch into 2013 or longer.
Protesters are demanding that the military council, at the least, begin immediately delegating domestic decision making to a newly empowered civilian government that would replace the current civilian prime minister and cabinet, who have been charged solely with carrying out the generals’ orders. But instead the generals agreed only to install a new apolitical “technocrat” government that would continue to do the same.
And the agreement reached Tuesday may also allow the military to preserve a vital role in shaping a new constitution. The generals have already indicated they hope to enshrine in it special powers and protections for their own institution, insulating it from civilian control.
(Under the new timetable, drafting of the constitution is scheduled to take place in just about one month. Candidates would be required to start running for president before a new constitution had defined the job.)
In Tahrir Square, many accused the Brotherhood of a shortsighted selling out that would only damage its standing. “Everyone knows the Brotherhood are opportunists; now we know it even more,” said Adham Hafez, an artist volunteering at a field clinic, adding that he learned of the deal when his parents called to tell him “how disgusting it is.”
But there were also signs of dissent within the Brotherhood. Despite the orders not to protest in Tahrir Square, many in the Brotherhood Youth defied their elders to take a stand against continued military rule. “The Brotherhood Youth will have to take our own decision between what the organization wants and what our conscience tells us to do,” said Mr. Lotfy, the former Brotherhood Youth leader.
Magdy el-Attar, 41, a mechanic and a Brotherhood member who said he had spent four days in Tahrir Square, said he was so disappointed in what he saw as the group’s capitulation to the generals that he had taken off his Muslim Brotherhood badge. “It’s heartbreaking to see how they have lost their principles in exchange for a piece of power,” he said. “All they care about is their seats in Parliament. They became businessmen. We used to all call for freedom. Now all they are looking at is power.”