Riots in Cairo Sentiment Growing against New Wave of Protests
This weekend's street battles in Cairo, which resulted in at least 20 deaths, could be costly for the protest movement. Many Egyptian people fear the riots will jeopardize precisely what the spring protest movement originally called for: free parliamentary elections that are slated to begin next week.
A new front formed in downtown Cairo on Sunday evening. "Go home, you useless people," one man called out. "Let me go to work -- my children are hungry," cursed another. Passers-by and car drivers stuck in traffic lashed out at the protesters on Tahrir Square -- at times even coming to blows.
The reactions are telling. For the last three days, some 5,000 revolutionaries, primarily made up of young men, have been protesting on the square. At times, the demonstrations have erupted into running battles with riot police. And the protesters, it would seem, are rapidly losing the support of the people. They have, after all, brought large parts of this city of 20 million residents to a standstill.
They have also, once again, turned the heart of Cairo into a battle zone. Since Sunday, at least 20 people have been killed in the clashes, according to the Health Ministry. The Associated Press on Monday quoted a morgue official as saying the death toll may even be as high as 33. Since the protests began on Saturday, at least 1,750 people have been injured.
These are the worst altercations to take place in the country since last spring's revolution, which saw daily protests on Tahrir Square, eventually resulting in the fall of despot Hosni Mubarak and his regime. On Monday morning, the unrest continued, with some 3,000 demonstrators protesting against the military government currently ruling the country. Police efforts to disperse the crowd, complete with tear gas and clubs, were not initially successful.
Protests Threaten Elections
The protests have meant that little can move in central Cairo. The traffic jams on major traffic arterials have reached up to 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) long. And the city's economy, which still hasn't recovered fully from last spring's revolution, is once again under threat. Over the weekend, guests made a hasty exit from luxury hotels on the Nile, which have already been suffering from limited demand. Egypt's leading stock index fell by 2.5 percent on Sunday.
But it isn't just economic concerns that have turned many Egyptians against the demonstrators on the square. The chaos in downtown Cairo is also jeopardizing the country's first free parliamentary elections, which are scheduled to begin next Monday and continue until January. "If we can't vote, then it will be because of these young men," one man cursed on Sunday on the Cairo subway.
The riots broke out on Saturday morning as police used excessive force to break-up a peaceful sit-in on the square. When a first wave of protesters responded to the police force, the initial injuries occurred as well as the first deaths. Since then, the violence has spiralled, and the protesters have refused to yield.
Protests Could Benefit Military Council
The protesters are demanding the immediate resignation of the military council, which is currently ruling the country. But it is precisely this demand that many Egyptians have a problem with. After all, any change in leadership would lead the pending election to be delayed indefinitely. And that, say some, could be advantageous to the military council, which many accuse of wanting to hold on to power for the long term. In short, many fear that the protests could help the military rather than hurt it.
The military continues to deny all suggestions that it may be seeking to delay the ballot. Mohammad Kadri Said, an analyst familiar with matters of the military council, said: "Every delay of the elections would worsen the situation, and that wouldn't help anyone." At present, he says, there is "just a little chaos." "But if elections are delayed," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE, "that could also lead to a rebellion." The army, he says, has no interest in seeing such a thing happen.
The conservative Muslim Brotherhood, whose Freedom and Justice Party stands a chance of coming out on top in the elections, is urging that the vote be held as planned. "The people have tasted freedom and they will not allow it to be taken away from them," said Mahmoud Ghoslan, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. He said he predicted a "blood bath" would take place if people were now prevented from electing new leaders for Egypt. "The army will not allow that to happen."
Nevertheless, parts of civil society have called for the immediate dissolution of the military through a transitional government. On Sunday, Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, brought himself into play as a possible head of such a government. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he said, "People are calling on me to present this government, and I will do whatever it takes to save our country from falling apart."
During the Egyptian revolution this spring, ElBaradei positioned himself as a voice of civil society. In his interview with the Guardian, he warned that "what we are seeing right now is the country going down."