Egyptian protesters dig in against new military leadership

Thousands of Egyptian protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo in this undated July, 2011 photo. Despite the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, protests have continued against the country's new military leadership. CBS

Tahrir Square protesters
Thousands of Egyptian protesters gather in Tahrir Square in Cairo in this undated July, 2011 photo. Despite the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, protests have continued against the country's new military leadership.
CBS/Igor Kossov

This post was written by Igor Kossov for CBSNews.com

For Egyptian protesters, the last drops of faith in the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are evaporating under the 100-degree sun beating down on Tahrir Square, the ground zero of the Egyptian revolution.

Tents and stages fill the square, where a majority denounced each concession that the government tried to throw at them in recent days -- frustrating the armed forces, which have sent mixed messages about its willingness to step aside. At the same time, the military showed signs of bending to popular opinion, even though its leaders did not agree to all protester demands.

"This is the first sit-in in five months," said Misheel Talaat Fekrey, an engineer. "The army is not sure what to do anymore."

In its most recent effort to make peace, the government fired 669 high level police officers Wednesday. Many had been associated with the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak or accused of being involved in the killing of 850 people during the original uprising in January.

The slow, uncertain trials of officers connected with these deaths have been a major source of recent anger. State security using tear gas and rubber bullets on protesters mourning these deaths June 28 didn't help. Nor did the July 4 release on bail of 10 officers accused of killing people in Tahrir Square.

The SCAF also agreed to postpone the parliamentary elections by a "month or two" according to state media. Many smaller political parties have complained that setting the elections in September will not let them build up enough to compete against well-established Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. The elections should be pushed to January, suggested Sherif Michawi, a member of the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, started by Egypt's famous activist, Ayman Nour. Nour ran against Mubarak in 2005, won second place, and was jailed afterwards.

"It's good that they pushed back elections. That was one of our demands," said Ahmed Maher, the founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, one of the more influential revolution groups. "But they met us partially. We need them to meet our full demands."

The delay is a dangerous gamble for the SCAF. It may inspire confidence by meeting the people's demands. On the other hand, it will mean several more months of the military being the most visible target for the people's anger. The only civilian government in place is represented by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, who is seen as weak and ineffective.

Protesters dismissed Sharaf's promise to reshuffle his cabinet. Some have called for him to step down while others said the prime minister's identity doesn't make much difference since his decisions must be ratified by the military to pass. Maher, whose faction supported Sharaf in the past, said "Any prime minister, Sharaf or otherwise, will be in the same position right now..." He said that one of the main demands of April 6 and the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth it belongs to, is to make clear where the authority of SCAF ends and the authority of the prime minister begins.

While protesters remain optimistic about their movement, high hopes across Egypt are mixing with a thread of cynicism.

"We should have stayed in the streets" after ousting Mubarak, said Tarek Mounir, an Egyptian journalist and activist. He said that the military let the people get their hopes up and now wants to be firmly entrenched.

The military has shown ambition in the past month. General Mahmoud Shahin said June 16 that the military should become the custodian of the constitution and have the right to intervene in politics to protect the public interest. Military spokespeople have reiterated that the constitution should make the military a protector of civilian institutions.

"The military demanded permission to be exempt from the civilian courts," said Mina Milad, an engineer in Tahrir. "They consider themselves more patriotic."

There is an increasing sense among the groups comprising the revolution that former president Mubarak, now slated to stand trial in August, may have been sacrificed by the military elite and that the military now poses the real challenge. Many protesters called for the entire SCAF to resign, chanting "the people want the fall of the Field Marshal," referring to the head of SCAF, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.

On Tuesday, General Mohsen El-Fangary, the military spokesman said that this is not going to happen and warned protesters, in terse tones, to not "endanger the best interests of the country." The protesters reacted with derision to his speech, especially to its "aggressive" tone and finger wagging.

However, April 6 said that the pressure appeared to be working. Maher said that SCAF invited him and other activists such as Dr. Mamdouh Hamza, the head of the National Council, an alliance of protesters and political parties and the man who paid for the big tent overhanging the central square. These representatives made their demands, which include a separation of military and civilian power, full replacement of Mubarak-era officials in all state and local government, drafting election rules together with the protesters and a body of supra-constitutional rules that will govern the creation of the constitution.

None of the groups who participated in this debate contained Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood made an appearance during the first few days of the sit-in but has been largely absent from the square recently. The military told the revolution representatives that the council would discuss these proposals and get in touch in the next few days.

These few days will be chock full of emergency meetings among SCAF and the different groups that comprise the revolution, as each side tries to firm the message it will bring to the negotiating table. April 6 tentatively scheduled a press conference for Saturday.

For now, protesters are determined to not get complacent and have remained in the square. Protesters across other cities like Alexandria and Suez have also come out to public squares in support.

"Before when Egyptians were uncertain, they sat at home. Now, they go to Tahrir," said Fekrey.

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