Fresh clashes between security forces and Egyptian protesters demanding the military step down have broken out in front of the country’s Cabinet building, leaving one man dead, as violence threatens to overshadow next week’s parliamentary elections.
Meanwhile, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council that took power after Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February, met separately on Saturday with opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and presidential hopeful Amr Moussa, who was the former head of the Arab League. Egyptian state TV reported the meetings but gave no details.
The new prime minister, whose appointment by the military on Friday touched off a wave of anger among protesters accusing the army of trying to perpetuate the old regime, also held a series of meetings trying to sway youth groups to his side.
State TV said Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri, who is unpopular in part because he served under Mubarak, offered Cabinet positions and is pondering the formation of an advisory council to be composed of leading democracy advocates and presidential hopefuls.
The suggestion however failed to disperse the protesters, with nearly 10,000 packing into Cairo’s central Tahrir Square as organizers called for another mass rally on Sunday.
Twenty-four protest groups, including two political parties, have announced they are creating their own “national salvation” government to be headed by ElBaradei with deputies from across the political spectrum, to which they demanded the military hand over power.
ElBaradei said in a statement that he would be willing to form such a government to manage the country’s transition. He said that if he were officially asked to put a government together, he would give up the idea of running for president in order to focus on the current phase of transition.
Outside the Cabinet building, hundreds of protesters set up camp, spending the night in blankets and tents to prevent the 78-year-old el-Ganzouri from entering to take up his new post. Early Saturday, they clashed with security forces who allegedly tried to disperse them.
An Associated Press cameraman saw three police troop carriers and an armoured vehicle firing tear gas as they were being chased from the site by rock-throwing protesters.
The man who was killed was run over by one of the vehicles, but there were conflicting accounts about the circumstances surrounding the death.
The Interior Ministry expressed regret for the death of the protester, identified as Ahmed Serour, and said it was an accident. Police didn’t intend to storm the sit-in but were merely heading to the Interior Ministry headquarters, located behind the Cabinet building, when they came under attack by angry protesters throwing firebombs, it said in a statement. The ministry claimed security forces were injured and the driver of one of the vehicles panicked and ran over the protester.
One of the demonstrators, Mohammed Zaghloul, 21, said he saw six security vehicles heading to their site.
“It became very tense, rock throwing started and the police cars were driving like crazy,” he said. “Police threw one tear gas canister and all of a sudden we saw our people carrying the body of a man who was bleeding really badly.”
Officials say more than 40 people have been killed across the country since Nov. 19, when the unrest began after a small sit-in by protesters injured during the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak was violently broken up by security forces. That sparked days of clashes, which ended with a truce on Thursday. It wasn’t clear whether the melee on Saturday was an isolated incident or part of fresh violence by security forces trying to clear the way for the new prime minister, and protesters frustrated by what they believe are the military’s efforts to perpetuate the old regime.
“El-Ganzouri was pulled out of his grave. He was a dead man,” said a 39-year-old employee Ahmad Anas as chants against the head of the military council filled the air outside the Cabinet building, “Tantawi and el-Ganzouri are choking me.” A banner hanging over the building gates read, “Closed until execution of field marshal.”
El-Ganzouri served as prime minister under Mubarak between 1996 and 1999. His name has been associated with failed mega projects including Toshka, an ambitious and expensive scheme to divert Nile water at the southern tip of Egypt to create a second Nile Valley. The project has cost billions and barely gotten off the ground.
The military’s appointment of el-Ganzouri, along with its apology for the death of protesters and a series of partial concessions in the past two days suggest that the generals are struggling to overcome the most serious challenge to their nine-month rule, with fewer options now available to them.
Hala al-Kousy, a 37-year-protester, vowed that protesters will not leave the square until the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the formal name of the military’s ruling council, gives up power.
“They are willing to wait and so are we,” al-Kousy said.
Egypt’s first parliamentary elections since Mubarak was replaced by the military council are slated to begin Monday. The vote, which the generals say will be held on schedule despite the unrest, is now seen by many activists and protesters to be serving the military’s efforts to project an image of itself as the nation’s saviours and true democrats.
However, boycotting elections is a hard choice for many youth groups who rose up against Mubarak’s autocratic regime in hopes of ushering in democracy, fair and free elections. Others have been engaged in awareness campaigns or are fielding candidates. Many said that even if they vote, they will continue their sit-in.
Mohammed el-Qassas, one of the founders of The Egyptian Current party, which was born out of the revolution, described the general atmosphere as “saddening,” but said he will vote just to “put my voice in the ballot.”
A member of another youth group, Injy Hamdi, 27, said, “We will all go to the ballot boxes, vote and then come back to the square.”
Mohammed Abdel-Moneim, 38, said the protesters would not allow any election tampering, allegedly widespread during the past regime.
“We protect the ballot boxes with our bodies and lives if we have to. We fought hard for this right to vote,” he said.
The next parliament is expected to be dominated by the country’s most organized political force, the Muslim Brotherhood. The group decided to boycott the ongoing protests to keep from doing anything that could derail the election. However, the outcome of the vote is likely to be seen as flawed given the growing unrest and the suspension by many candidates of their campaigns in solidarity with the protesters.