Egypt activists gather for mass rally against army

CAIRO Fri Dec 23, 2011 3:30pm IST

A view shows traffic at Tahrir Square in Cairo December 22, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer

A view shows traffic at Tahrir Square in Cairo December 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian protesters gathered in Cairo for a mass rally they called for on Friday against the military's handling of protests that killed 17 people and have drawn international criticism of the ruling generals.

Protesters who fought soldiers and police in the capital for five days until calm was restored this week want the ruling military council to cede power more swiftly than planned.

Some Egyptians, sceptical of the military's avowed commitment to democratic change, want a presidential vote as early as January 25, the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, or at least much earlier than the mid-2012 handover now scheduled.

Anger has been fuelled by scenes of men being clubbed by soldiers even when lying on the ground and women being dragged and stamped on. But many also fret at the fact that 10 months after Mubarak's fall Egypt remains in disarray and want protests to stop so order can be restored and the economy revitalised.

The Muslim Brotherhood's party, leading in a staggered parliamentary election that runs to January, said it would not join Friday's rally. It backs the army's transition timetable and says the process must be decided by balloting not pressure.

Hundreds of demonstrators were already in Cairo's Tahrir Square, heart of the revolt against Mubarak, on Friday morning, chanting, "Down with the field marshal" and "down with military rule". A huge Egyptian flag was wrapped around lampposts in the central circle. Vendors were selling food or flags.

Protests tend to gather momentum after midday prayers. In the wake of the recent violence, walls of big concrete blocks have been erected where clashes were fiercest to bar access from Tahrir to parliament, the cabinet and Interior Ministry.

"The current predicament we have reached is a result of the army council's reluctance to play its role, its intentional foot-dragging, breaking its obligations and failing over the economy and security, putting the whole country on the edge of a huge crisis," said a statement signed by two dozen parties, youth movements and others that called for Friday's protest.

It said members of the military council, which is led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, should be held to account out of respect for those killed and women who were mistreated.

The army has said it regrets the violence and offered an apology for an incident where a woman was dragged by soldiers, had her bra and torso exposed and then beaten. It said that case was isolated and was being investigated.

STUDENTS CALL FOR MARCH

One banner in the square called for handing power to a civilian council that would include Abdel Moneim Abul Futuh, who was ejected from the Brotherhood after he defied their decision not to field a presidential candidate.

The April 6 movement, which played a lead role in galvanising Egyptians to rise up against Mubarak, said the army's handling of the latest street protests showed it was seeking to "protect the previous regime".

Students appealed to Egyptians to join Friday's protest with a march from Cairo's Ain Shams university, two of whose students were among the 17 killed.

Those deaths prompted sit-ins on Ain Shams campus, in front of the Defence Ministry and at other universities.

While the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party FJP.L said it would stay out of Friday's rally, the ultraconservative Salafist al-Nour Party, a surprise runner-up in the election so far, said on its Facebook page that it would take part.

Many activists accuse the Brotherhood and other Islamists of betraying the protest movement in order to secure their own positions in the emerging new power structure.

The FJP said on its Facebook page it would not participate although it said it was "the right of the Egyptian people to protest and demonstrate peacefully".

"The party emphasises the need for the handover of power to civilians according to the will of the Egyptian people through free and fair elections ... in a stable environment," said Mohamed al-Katatni, a senior member of the FJP.

SHAPING THE CONSTITUTION

His remarks indicated the group was sticking to the army's timetable to hold a presidential vote in June. The Brotherhood has said bringing the vote forward could "create chaos".

The Brotherhood may want to shape the new constitution before a presidential vote, seeking more influence for parliament where it is doing well because of a well-organised grassroots network, and reining in powers of the president.

An earlier presidential vote would not necessarily eliminate the military's dominance in a new civilian-governed state.

The military has survived Egypt's political upheaval intact and has vast economic and other interests, so any new president would likely need its support to maintain order.

The United States, which provides the military with $1.3 billion a year in aid, a deal in place since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has rebuked the ruling generals for their rough handling of protests.

Washington, which like other Western powers long looked to Mubarak to keep a lid on Islamists, has been cultivating contact with newly elected Islamist politicians.

Parliament's primary role will be in picking a 100-strong assembly that will write the new constitution.

Unrest in Tahrir that has gone on since November 18 was stirred by resentment over proposals by the army-backed cabinet for articles in the new constitution that would have permanently shielded the military from civilian oversight.

(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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