CAIRO (Reuters) - When Egypt’s military ruler was caught on video in a civilian suit strolling through downtown Cairo and speaking to passers-by, Web users swiftly mocked it as a stunt to win support from an increasingly mistrustful public.
State television said images it broadcast on Monday night, two days after Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi gave testimony in court that some lawyers said favoured deposed president Hosni Mubarak, was a chance encounter recorded by a surprised pedestrian. Many Egyptians found that hard to believe.
Twitter and Facebook users, who employed the Internet to devastating effect during the anti-Mubarak uprising, responded by circulating a new chant for protesters: “Wear a suit or wear boxers, we will still say, ‘Down with military rule’.”
Eight months after Mubarak was toppled and a military council took over, analysts and ordinary Egyptians say the army is protecting the old order that kept Mubarak in office and wants to hold power after it gives up day-to-day government.
The army insists it has no political ambition or bias.
But its critics point to Tantawi’s -- unpublished -- testimony on Saturday, the revival of emergency law that the former president used to stifle dissent and election rules that politicians say will let Mubarak’s allies into parliament.
Some see the rising anger of activists leading to bigger street confrontations with the army if it doesn’t change course.
“There is a continuing perception that it is part of the old regime,” said political science professor Hassan Nafaa.
”The gap between what the people want and what the military wants will widen in the coming few weeks.
“They don’t want to rule directly but they want to rule from behind the scenes,” Nafaa said, adding that he believed the army had drawn “red lines” to protect its broad business interests and to secure ties with Israel and the United States that guarantee billions of dollars of U.S. military aid.
Saturday’s testimony by Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council and who served as Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades, has deepened the distrust.
The judge imposed a news blackout on his remarks, a move that angered Egyptians who wanted transparency. But it has not stopped leaks on the Web or barred lawyers who were at the hearing from publicly declaring his testimony backed Mubarak.
The lawyers, who represent the families of some of the roughly 850 people killed in the 18-day uprising, said Tantawi was given an easy ride during questioning and was not subject to cross-examination that would have given a clear indication about whether Mubarak gave orders to fire on protesters.
“The trials are not serious and it is apparent from the beginning that they are protecting the defendants,” said Ingy Hamdy, a spokeswoman of April 6 movement which helped lead the uprising. She spoke after Tantawi had given evidence.
A Western diplomat said the army was working to ensure its generals did not suffer the fate of Mubarak, a former military chief. “They are not going to go while there is the spectre of Tantawi ending up like Mubarak in a cage in court,” he said.
He said generals seemed increasingly confident they could handle any discontent, while protecting their interests and planning for power from the shadows, adding: “That would be a miscalculation. But it is a miscalculation I see them making.”
The change in mood among protesters is stark. The army was hailed when it deployed on the streets in the last days of Mubarak’s rule after police lost control. Demonstrators climbed on tanks around Tahrir Square and shook hands with soldiers.
But the cosy relationship has broken down. A few metres (yards) from where Tantawi walked on camera on Monday, walls are plastered with graffiti railing against the army rulers: “Down with the military council, robber of the revolution.”
“The military doesn’t seem to understand the kind of rage on the street,” said rights activist Sohair Riad.
“It’s only a matter of time before the public takes to the street again and this time with full force.”
The army dismisses the criticism.
“All I can say is that the army performed its national duty towards the people and protesters and it has nothing to do with politics as it does not seek power,” a military source said. Army officers rarely speak to journalists on the record.
The army may also have allies among the public. Many Egyptians are tired of protests that have disrupted their lives and welcome the army’s strong hand.
“The people are tired. Enough with protests,” said Hussein Mohamed, a 65-year-old factory owner. “It is good that the army has implemented strict laws and I wish it could act tougher to end all protests and get life back to normal.”
The army has taken a tougher line. After protesters marched on Israel’s embassy on Sept. 9 and some stormed inside, the army-backed government revived emergency law, giving police wide powers to detain people.
That has angered liberals, who see it as a return to draconian tactics used by Mubarak. Some of the army’s sternest critics said the army used the embassy episode as an excuse to come down hard and distract Egyptians from demands for swifter reform.
All eyes are now on a parliamentary election due to start in November with voting spread over several weeks.
Few doubt the army will ensure voting proceeds fairly after Mubarak’s routinely rigged ballots. But election rules the army drew up are likely to ensure there is no single, dominant group, even if many expect Islamists to gain a stronger voice.
A new election law gives two thirds of seats to party lists and a third to individuals, a move political parties oppose because they say it opens the doors to let loyalists of Mubarak’s defunct party to run again.
That looks likely to produce a fragmented assembly, which the Western diplomat said would favour the army.
Posing the question from the generals’ point of view, he asked: ”Do you want a strong unified parliament standing against you saying ‘You butt out and go back to your barracks and give up your economic interests?
“Or do you want a parliament that is fighting like cats in a bag?”
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Yasmine Saleh and Tamim Elyan; Editing by Alastair Macdonald