For Egypt, process of sorting out power and roles begins

CAIRO — A new era dawned in Egypt on Saturday as this nation of 80 million — and hundreds of millions beyond its borders — began to absorb the fact that an 18-day mass movement of largely nonviolent protest brought down a nearly 30-year military dictatorship and renewed the country's lease on life.

Ordinary Egyptians carried their party into a second day as they sang, danced and cheered in Tahrir Square in ecstasy over the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's new army leadership quickly sought to project its control and assuage fears about military rule, at home and abroad. At the same time, opposition leaders took steps toward asserting their own role in the country's future.

A spokesman, Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, appeared on state TV in front of a row of Egyptian military and national flags and read a statement from the military's Supreme Council, proclaiming that the military is "looking forward to a peaceful transition … to permit an elected civil authority to be in charge of the country to build a democratic, free nation."

The announcement said that Egypt would continue to abide by all of its international and regional treaties — which include its peace treaty with Israel — and that the current civilian leadership would manage the country's affairs until the formation of a new government, without giving a timetable.

Fangari urged citizens to cooperate with police, after weeks of civil strife, and urged a force stained by accusations of abuse and torture to be mindful of the department's new slogan: "The police in the service of the people."

The military relaxed the curfew — now to run from midnight to 6 a.m., instead of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. — and the stock market announced plans to reopen on Wednesday after being closed nearly three weeks.

The protesters' first act was deeply symbolic of their ambition to build a new Egypt and their determination to do it themselves: Thousands began cleaning up Tahrir Square, the epicenter of their movement. The sprawling plaza was battered and trashed by 18 days of street battles and rallies by hundreds of thousands.

Even as thousands flowed in to celebrate, broom brigades fanned out, with smiling young men and women — some in stylish clothes and earrings — sweeping up rubble and garbage. Others repaired sidewalks torn apart for concrete chunks to use as ammunition in fighting with pro-regime gangs. Young, veiled girls painted the metal railings of fences along the sidewalk. "Sorry for the inconvenience, but we're building Egypt," read placards many wore.

"We are cleaning the square now because it is ours," said Omar Mohammed, a 20-year-old student. "After living here for three weeks, it has become our home. … We're going to leave it better than before."

A coalition of youth groups that organized the protests issued their first cohesive list of demands for handling the transition to democracy. Their focus was on ensuring they — not just the military or members of Mubarak's regime — have a seat at the table in deliberations shaping the future.

Among their demands: lifting of emergency law; creating a presidential council, made up of a military representative and two "trusted personalities"; the dissolving of the ruling-party-dominated parliament; and the forming of a broad-based unity government and a committee to either amend or completely rewrite the constitution.

"The revolution is not over. This is just a beginning. We are working on how to move into a second republic," said Shady el-Ghazali Harb, the representative on the coalition from one of the youth organizing groups, the Democratic Front.

Protesters were debating whether to lift their 24-hour-a-day demonstration camp in Tahrir. The coalition called for it to end and be replaced by mass demonstrations every Friday to keep pressure on. But many in the square argued to remain. One man on a megaphone encouraged everyone to stay until all their demands were met, while others chanted "the people want the square to be cleared," referring to public grumbling that the protest camp is disrupting life downtown.

Many in the square were pouring love on the military: Families put babies on the laps of soldiers on tanks for photos and crowds cheered when a line of soldiers jogged by. But there was also realism that the military's ultimate intention is unclear.

"We don't know what they'll do; they might keep hanging on to power," said Mohammed Ali, a 22-year-old archaeology student who argued for the protests to continue.

With Mubarak gone, Egypt's future will likely be shaped by three powers: the military, the protesters and the sprawling autocratic infrastructure of Mubarak's regime that remains in place, dominating the bureaucracy, the police, state media and parts of the economy. Right now, the protesters' intentions are the clearest of the bunch.

The Armed Forces Supreme Council is now the official ruler after Mubarak handed it power on Friday. It consists of the commanders of each military branch, the chief of staff and Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi. It has not explicitly canceled the constitution drawn up by Mubarak's regime, but the constitution seems to have effectively been put in a cupboard for the time being.

The other force that has hardly been heard from yet is the remainder of Mubarak's regime, which was accused of widespread corruption and authoritarianism but also has the experience in the nitty-gritty of running the country, unlike the military.

Members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party still dominate ministries, parliament, state industries and other bodies. The powerful security forces, accused of widespread use of torture and involvement in past vote rigging, remain empowered by the emergency law that gives them wide authorities of arrest.

The regime remainders are battered. Some of its top personalities were purged in Mubarak's last days. Seeking to placate protester demands, the public prosecutor has launched a corruption investigation into four of the millionaire businessman politicians who came to dominate the National Democratic Party under the leadership of Mubarak's son, Gamal — former ministers Ahmed Maghrabi, Rashid Mohammed Rashid and Zuheir Garana, as well as ex-ruling party figure Ahmed Ezz.

This report contains information from the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times.

For Egypt, process of sorting out power and roles begins 02/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 12, 2011 10:31pm]

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