High hopes for democracy but the army is in control

There is euphoria as normal life resumes under military rule. But protesters say that Tahrir Square will be a weekly rallying point.

By David Randall
Sunday 13 February 2011 01:00

The first day of the new Egypt ended last night with assurance for Israel and the US, a ban on former government officials leaving the country, and the beginnings of a return to unrevolutionary life, especially in Cairo. Never can a city have been so pleased to see the resumption of its notorious traffic jams.

But some protesters remained in Tahrir Square for much of yesterday, insisting they had demands still to be met and fears to be assuaged. They later said they would leave, but would reconvene there on one day each week – a sign that this is not a clean-cut revolution. The king may be dead, but there is not yet a new one to hail – only a regency by the army.

The military now running a state that was, until Friday, Mr Mubarak's fiefdom, did nothing to dent the mood of euphoria. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces asked the current government to continue, a stop-gap measure to keep the state and economy functioning while a transitional administration is set up. The army also undertook "to guarantee the peaceful transition of power in the framework of a free, democratic system which allows an elected, civilian power to govern the country to build a democratic, free state". The protesters could hardly have put it better. So far, then, so good.

There was also, to the relief of Tel Aviv and Washington, a pledge that "all regional and international obligations and treaties" would be maintained, including a 1979 peace accord with Israel.

Less reassured will be any ministers and officials of the Mubarak regime toying with the idea of a one-way ticket to well-heeled exile. Airports have now been issued with a list of former regime members and current officials who are not allowed to leave without permission from the state prosecutor or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The former president, Hosni Mubarak, was not among the would-be overseas vacationers. He stays, behind the walls of his palatial residence in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, an old man shorn of authority over everything except what time he has breakfast. And he must be wondering if his deposing is the only humiliation that will be heaped upon him. Swiss banks have already frozen accounts where much of his supposed stash of billions allegedly lies, and he must now be calculating the chances of arrest, charges and trial. His record as a war hero might save him from that.

The first day of a Mubarak-free Egypt was also marked by considerable easing of the widely ignored curfew, now running only from midnight to 6am, rather than from 8pm. Banks had reopened last week, and the stock market is scheduled to reopen on Wednesday, nearly three weeks after it was closed. Most shops in Cairo have reopened, and the Suez Canal is working normally.

Along with continued euphoria came the beginnings of a substantial clearing-up job in Cairo. Soldiers removed barricades; burnt-out vehicles were towed away; people, including young activists wearing surgical masks, swept the streets and hauled away mounds of trash. Many had placards that read "Sorry for the inconvenience, but we're building Egypt". Some took down their makeshift tents and headed home.

Others spent much of yesterday vowing to stay put until the military completes the move towards a full democracy to their satisfaction. "The army is with us, but it must realise our demands. Half-revolutions kill nations," Ghada Elmasalmy, a pharmacist, told Reuters. "Now we know our place, whenever there is injustice, we will come to Tahrir Square." In two communiqués issued overnight, a core group of protest organisers demanded the lifting of a state of emergency and the formation of a transitional government to prepare for an election to take place within nine months, and of a body to draft a new democratic constitution.

Behind the celebrations, there was a note of caution over how far the armed forces under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mr Mubarak's veteran defence minister, were ready to permit democracy, especially as the hitherto banned Muslim Brotherhood is one of the best organised movements.

"This is just the end of the beginning," said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Egypt isn't moving toward democracy, it's moved into martial law and where it goes is now subject to debate."

The Muslim Brotherhood, viewed with understandable, if not well-founded, suspicion by the US, said yesterday it was not seeking power, and praised the efforts of the new army rulers to transfer power to civilians. "The Muslim Brotherhood... are not seeking personal gains, so they announce they will not run for the presidency and will not seek to get a majority in the parliament and that they consider themselves servants of these decent people," it said.

As night fell in Cairo, army tanks and soldiers stayed on the streets guarding key intersections and government buildings. With the threat of possible confrontation between the army and protesters now gone, Cairo residents took souvenir photographs of each other with smiling soldiers at roadblocks to record the first day of a new post-Mubarak era. "I could not have imagined living to see such a day ... I just hope the new system in Egypt benefits us and fulfils our dreams," Essam Ismail, a Cairo resident in his thirties, told Reuters. "I still can't believe it really happened."

And, in a satisfyingly sudden about-face, former pro-government papers, along with state-run TV and radio, shifted their editorial policy 180 degrees and congratulated the Egyptian people. The once pro-Mubarak daily Al-Ahram ran a front-page headline declaring: "The people ousted the regime. The Egyptian youth forced Mubarak to leave. Egyptians have been celebrating until morning, with victory in the first popular revolution in their history."

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