Pro-democracy protests continue to flare on Tuesday

Egypt's pro-democracy protests continued to flare on Tuesday, driving the nation, widely viewed as the heartbeat of the Arab world, into paroxysms of uncertainty, fear and hope.

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, tens of thousands of people thronged Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the blazing rebellion. They were responding to the call for a march of a million people, which protesters hoped would impart momentum to the new wave of bloody protests that commenced on Saturday, to wrest control of Tahrir Square. By entrenching themselves at the square, the protesters hoped to establish a symbolically significant base to amplify their call for an end to the existing military rule and speedy transfer of power to a civilian authority. After the exit of Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt has been ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF had assumed charge with the pledge of transitioning Egypt to a stable democracy.

On Tuesday, a street leading to the Interior Ministry, not far from the square, became the focal point of pitched battles between protesters, who hurled rocks torn out of pavements, and the security forces, who responded with teargas barrages. While clouds of teargas drifted into the square, both sides reinforced their makeshift barricades in the street, unwilling to give up an inch.

Inside Tahrir, there were signs that the protesters were preparing for a long haul. Anticipating casualties, especially as the death toll after four days of violence had risen to 28, medical tents had surfaced. A new banner had been raised which pithily read: “This land is owned by the Egyptian people.”

The chaotic situation, which has spiralled since security forces on Saturday assaulted protesters, briefly paralysed trading on the Cairo Stock Exchange.

As it gathers steam just ahead of the November 28 parliamentary elections, the revolt has also exposed fault lines, however temporary, within the opposition ranks. The main Islamist Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, on Tuesday declared that it would no longer participate in the protests, reported the Egyptian news portal Al Masry Al Youm on its website. However, the ultra-conservative Salafist party, Al Nour, declared it was joining Tuesday's demonstrations.

Analysts say the announcement by the Brothers is a likely response to their fears that the freewheeling violence could lead to the postponement of next week's poll, where the Islamists are expected to do well.

The show of street power has pushed the authorities in Cairo deeper into the damage-control mode. The military has accepted the resignation of the civilian Cabinet and consultations have begun to find a successor to Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, state media reported.

However, this is likely to be an uphill task as individuals known for their credibility are expected to hesitate at this juncture to establish a partnership with the military, whose image is in free fall.

The military's conduct has also drawn severe criticism from influential quarters abroad. In a statement, Amnesty International said the ruling military authorities had “been responsible for a catalogue of abuses, which in some cases exceeds the record of Hosni Mubarak”.

However, some observers are of the view that the military has powerful friends in the West, where it is viewed as a bulwark against Islamist extremism, as well as factor of stability in a geopolitically vital part of the world.

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