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Sweeping change by Egypt’s military

Parliament dissolved amid quiet worries

A woman photographed her son with soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday. Most of the protesters had headed home. A woman photographed her son with soldiers in Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday. Most of the protesters had headed home. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)
By Anthony Shadid
New York Times / February 14, 2011

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CAIRO — The Egyptian military consolidated its control yesterday over what it has called a democratic transition from nearly three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule, dissolving the country’s feeble Parliament, suspending the constitution, and calling for elections in six months in sweeping steps that echoed protesters’ demands.

The statement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, read on television, effectively put Egypt under direct military authority, thrusting the country into territory uncharted since republican Egypt was founded in 1952.

Though enjoying popular support, the military must now cope with the formidable task of negotiating a postrevolutionary landscape still basking in the glow of Mubarak’s fall but beset by demands to ease Egyptians’ many hardships.

Since seizing power from Mubarak on Friday, the military has struck a reassuring note, responding in words and actions to the platform articulated by hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square.

But beyond more protests, there is almost no check on the sweep of military rule. Its statement said it would form a committee to draft constitutional amendments — pointedly keeping it in its hands, not the opposition’s — though it promised to put them before a referendum.

While opposition leaders welcomed the moves, some have quietly raised worries about the future role of an institution that has been a pillar of the status quo in Egypt, playing a crucial behind-the-scenes role in preserving its vast business interests and political capital.

Locally, optimism over Egypt’s future with Israel. B1

“Over the next six months, I am afraid the army will brainwash the people to think that the military is the best option,’’ said Dina Aboul Seoud, a 35-year-old protester, still in the square yesterday. “Now, I am afraid of what is going to happen next.’’

Yesterday brought scenes that juxtaposed a more familiar capital with a country forever changed by Mubarak’s fall. Hundreds of policemen, belonging to one of the most loathed institutions in Egypt, rallied in downtown Cairo to demand better pay and treatment. A short walk away, traffic returned to Tahrir Square, a symbol of the revolution, navigating through lingering protesters and festive and jubilant sightseers.

In a burst of civic duty, youthful volunteers swept streets, painted fences and curbs, washed away graffiti that read “Down with Mubarak,’’ and planted bushes in a square many want to turn into a memorial for one of the most stunning uprisings in Arab history. Soldiers drove a truck mounted with speakers that blared, “Egypt is my beloved.’’

“Egypt is my blood,’’ said Oummia Ali, a flight attendant for Egyptian Air who skipped work to paint the square’s railing green. “I want to build our country again.’’

As she spoke, a boisterous crowd marched down the street away from Tahrir Square. Tahrir means Liberation in Arabic and is named for the fall of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. “Let’s go home,’’ they chanted, “we got our rights.’’

Though hundreds, perhaps more, vowed to stay until more reforms were enacted, tents were dismantled, banners taken down, and trucks piled with blankets that kept protesters warm over the 18 days of demonstrations that began Jan. 25, the date organizers have given to their revolution.

The military’s statement was the clearest elaboration yet of its plans for Egypt, as the country’s opposition forces, from the Muslim Brotherhood to labor unions, seek to build on the momentum of the protests and create a democratic system with few parallels in the Arab world. The moves to suspend the constitution and to dissolve Parliament, chosen in an election deemed a sham even by Mubarak’s standards, were expected.

The statement declared that the supreme command would issue laws in the transitional period before elections and that Egypt’s defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, would represent the country at home and abroad, in a sign that the 75-year-old Mubarak loyalist had moved to the forefront.

Protesters — and some classified US diplomatic cables — have dismissed Tantawi as a “poodle’’ of Mubarak’s. But some senior US officers said he is a shrewd operator who played a significant role in managing Mubarak’s nonviolent ouster.

The military’s communique was welcomed by opposition leaders as offering a specific timetable for transition to civil rule. Ayman Nour, a longtime opponent of Mubarak’s, called it a victory for the revolution, while youthful leaders, some of whom met in downtown Cairo last night to chart a path forward in negotiations with the military, described it as a concrete step.

“The statement is fine,’’ said Ahmed Maher, a leading organizer. “We still need more details, but it was more comforting than what we heard before.’’ Another organizer, Ahmed Zidan, said it met “90 percent of the demands’’ of the demonstrators.

But still unanswered are other demands of the protesters, among them the release of thousands of political prisoners. The military’s position on emergency law, which gave Mubarak’s government wide powers to arrest and detain people, has similarly remained ambiguous. The military said earlier that it would abolish it once conditions improved, but has yet to address it since. Essam al-Arian, a prominent Brotherhood leader, echoed those demands, saying their fulfillment “would bring calm to the society.’’

The military has said the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, appointed Jan. 29, would remain in place as a caretaker Cabinet in the transition, though it reserved the right to dismiss some of the ministers. The Cabinet met yesterday for the first time since Mubarak’s fall, notably with his once-ubiquitous portrait nowhere to be seen.

“Our concern now in the Cabinet is security, to bring security back to the Egyptian citizen,’’ he told a news conference after the meeting, echoing the demands of many in Cairo’s streets yesterday that it was time to end nearly three weeks of tumult.

Other than Tantawi and Sami Anan, the army chief of staff, the military’s council remains opaque, with many in Egypt unable to identity anyone else on it. Omar Suleiman, the former vice president and once one of the most powerful men in Egypt, has not appeared since Friday, and Shafiq said the military would determine his role.

With the police yet to return to the streets in force, the military has deployed across the city, seeking to manage protests that sprung up across Cairo yesterday. At banks, insurance companies, and even the Academy of Scientific Research, scores gathered to demand better pay, in a sign of the difficulties the military will face in meeting the expectations that have exponentially risen with the success of the uprising.

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