Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council
of the Armed Forces, before a news conference at the Defense Ministry in
Cairo Nov. 25, 2011.
Egyptians go to the polls on Monday to cast their first votes for a new parliament after the end of the 30-year rule of strongman Hosni Mubarak, forced from power in February in one of the seminal moments of the Arab Spring.
The run-up to voting in the cultural heart of the Arab world and region’s most populous country has been marred by violence and fears of chaos as the army, protesters and new political figures fight for influence.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads a council of generals who took power after Mubarak’s fall, called on voters to turn out and said he would not buckle in the face of demands for the army to hand control to civilian leaders.
“We are faced with enormous challenges and we will not allow any individual or party to pressure the armed forces,” he told reporters, adding that Egypt stood at “a crossroads.”
“Either succeed politically, economically and socially or face very dangerous consequences… and we will not let that happen,” he said, according to the MENA news agency.
Protesters have again occupied Cairo’s Tahrir Square, epicenter of the mass protests that drove Mubarak from power, but this time their target is Tantawi and his fellow generals.
Thousands gathered on Sunday ahead of a planned “million-person march” called by The Revolution Youth Coalition to reject new 78-year-old caretaker prime minister Kamal al-Ganzuri, appointed by the army last week.
“Down with the military!” shouted a group of young men on the edge of the square underneath a lamp post from which an effigy dressed in army green was hanging by the neck.
Feeding the anger of those assembled in Tahrir, many of whom carried visible injuries from last week’s unrest, was the death of an unarmed 19-year-old demonstrator on Saturday who was crushed by a police truck.
The demonstrators fear that Egypt’s temporary military rulers are looking to consolidate their influence and are too quick to resort to Mubarak-era tactics of violence and repression when faced with opposition.
“I believe the Egyptian authorities must impose public order in a different way and that it is time they hand over power to civilians,” France’s Interior Minister Claude Gueant told French media on Sunday.
The generals have pushed back the original timetable for transferring power to a civilian government and demanded a final say on all legislation concerning the army in the future.
“They don’t want to give back power,” said 18-year-old student Raghda, who was visiting the square on Sunday.
Outside Tahrir, the political leaders expected to shape the democratic future of the country of more than 80 million people are locked in a fight for influence with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
In an effort to resolve the crisis, Tantawi called a meeting with all political party leaders and future presidential candidates, but it was boycotted by several leading figures.
The violence over the past week, which has seen 42 people die as police used live ammunition and tear gas, has cast a pall over the start of voting that was intended to usher in a new democratic era.
The unrest has led to calls for the elections — spread in three stages over six weeks in a complicated process — to be delayed because of deteriorating security and the threat of boycotts.
“The blood of the revolutionaries has not even dried yet on Tahrir Square and we should take part in elections? I won’t go to vote,” said one protester on Sunday who gave his name as Mustafa.
Also on Sunday, the influential Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, expected to be the biggest party in the new parliament, said it should form a new government if it emerges as the largest parliamentary bloc.
“If the government is not representative of parliament, the assembly will block all its decisions,” spokesman Mahmud Ghozlan told AFP.
There is great uncertainty over how the new parliament, to be elected in stages over the next six weeks, will function because of a lack of clarity from the SCAF and the legal limbo until a new constitution is written.
Two days of voting from Monday will take place in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria as well as Fayum, Luxor, Port Said, Damietta, Kafr el-Sheikh and the Red Sea province.
Other cities and regions follow on December 14 and January 3.