An influential Egyptian opposition figure and likely presidential candidate called Sunday for Cairo’s peace treaty with Israel to be reassessed, the first sign since former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster Friday that the 32-year-old agreement may be in jeopardy.
Ayman Nour, a former lawmaker and chairman of the Ghad (Tomorrow) party, told an Egyptian radio station that the 1978 Camp David Accords were no longer relevant, and said the country’s leadership should at least rethink the terms of the framework agreements that led to a peace deal between the erstwhile enemies the following year.
Photo gallery: Egyptians celebrate Mubarak-free reality
Army surrounds Tahrir holdouts, arrests leaders
Analysis: Prepare the ground for a real transition to democracy
Details of the interview were revealed Sunday evening by Ehud Yaari, Middle Eastern affairs commentator for Channel 2 News.
On Saturday, the Egyptian military confirmed it would abide by all of the country’s prior international agreements, an announcement welcomed in Jerusalem by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The conflicting signal heard Sunday from a potential presidential candidate – heading not an Islamist party, but one describing itself as secular, liberal and human-rights oriented – is likely to give Israeli decision-makers pause.
“The Camp David Accords are finished,” Nour said. “Egypt has to at least conduct negotiations over conditions of the agreement.”
However, Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Sameh Shoukry said Sunday that he believed Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel would stand.
“The treaty with Israel... has been beneficial to Egypt over the last 30 years,” Sameh said in an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. “We have derived a dividend from the treaty. We have been able to establish security and stability in the region, and I believe it is a main element in terms of our foreign policy.”
Nour, 46, was imprisoned in 2005 after running against Mubarak in presidential elections. The opposition leader came in first runner-up with 7 percent of the vote in a ballot widely criticized as rigged – independent observers believe Nour may have actually received twice as many votes. A diabetic, he was released from prison in 2009 on health grounds.
Nour took a leading role in the protests of recent weeks, and on January 28 suffered a head wound when hit by a stone in clashes between pro-Mubarak and antigovernment protesters.
Egypt’s military leaders dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution Sunday, meeting two key demands of protesters who have been keeping up pressure for immediate steps to transition to democratic, civilian rule after forcing Mubarak out of power.
Nour told Reuters that he believed those steps on the military’s part should satisfy demonstrators.
“It is a victory for the revolution,” he said. “I think this will satisfy the protesters.”
The military rulers and caretaker government that took over from Mubarak set as a top priority the restoration of security, which collapsed during the 18 days of protests that toppled the regime. The caretaker government held its first meeting since the president was ousted, and before it began, workers removed a giant picture of Mubarak from the meeting room.
The protesters had been pressing the ruling military council, led by Defense Minister Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, to move forward immediately with the transition by appointing a presidential council, dissolving the parliament and releasing political prisoners.
“They have definitely started to offer us what we wanted,” said activist Sally Touma, reflecting a mix of caution and optimism among the protesters. Thousands have remained in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to demand immediate steps by the council, such as the repeal of repressive emergency laws that give police broad powers.
The suspension of the constitution effectively puts Egypt under martial law – where the military makes the laws and enforces them in military tribunals. The ruling council is expected to clarify the issue in upcoming statements, and the role of civilian courts remains unclear.
Judge Hisham Bastawisi, a reformist judge, said the latest measures “should open the door for free formation of political parties and open the way for any Egyptian to run for presidential elections,” which the constitutional amendments are expected to do.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the non-governmental Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the military’s steps were positive, but warned that Egypt was on uncharted legal ground.
“In the absence of a constitution, we have entered a sort of ‘twilight zone’ in terms of rules, so we are concerned,” he said.
“We are clearly monitoring the situation and will attempt to influence the transitional phase so as to respect human rights.”
The ruling council said it would run the country for six months, or until presidential and parliamentary elections could be held. It said it was forming a committee to amend the constitution and set the rules for a popular referendum to endorse the amendments.
Both the lower and upper houses of parliament are being dissolved. The last parliamentary elections in November and December were heavily rigged by the ruling party, virtually shutting out opposition representation.
The caretaker cabinet, which was appointed by Mubarak shortly after the pro-democracy protests began on January 25, will remain in place until a new cabinet is formed – a step that is not expected to happen until after elections. The ruling council has reiterated that it would abide by all of Egypt’s international treaties agreed upon in the Mubarak era, most importantly the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.
“Our concern now in the cabinet is security, to bring security back to the Egyptian citizen,” Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq told a news conference after the cabinet meeting.
Shafiq said the military would decide whether Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice president by Mubarak in a failed attempt to appease protesters, would play some role in Egypt’s transition.
“He might fill an important position in the coming era,” the prime minister said.
He also denied rumors that Mubarak had fled to the United Arab Emirates, saying the former president remained in the Red Sea resort of Sharm e-Sheikh. He went there just hours after stepping down.
“In a country like Egypt, with a pharaonic legacy, having no president and no head of state is not easy,” said Amr el-Shobaky, a member of the Committee of Wise Men – a self-appointed group of prominent figures who are allied with the protesters.
The police, hated for their brutality and corruption under decades-old emergency laws, marched Sunday through Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry, which oversees them. They demanded better pay and conditions, but also sought to absolve themselves of responsibility for the police’s attempted crackdown at the start of the protests that killed many demonstrators.
“You have done this inhuman act,” one of the Tahrir protesters said to the police. “We no longer trust you.”
Hearing the accusations, Said Abdul-Rahim, a low-ranking officer, broke down in tears.
“I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it,” he implored. “All these orders were coming from senior leaders. This is not our fault.”
About 2,000 policemen demonstrated, at times scuffling with soldiers who tried to disperse them. Some troops fired gunshots in the air, but later withdrew to avoid antagonizing the protesters. A few tanks remained outside the ministry.
“This is our ministry,” the police shouted.
“The people and the police are one hand,” they chanted, borrowing an expression for unity.
The interior minister, Mahmoud Wagdy, emerged from the building to talk to the police through a megaphone. He said they had a right to be angry.
“Give me a chance,” he said.
Separately, Egyptian troops scuffled with holdout protesters in Tahrir
Square as the caretaker government sought to impose order, but outbreaks
of labor unrest, including the police protest, underscored the
challenges of steering Egypt toward stability and democratic rule.
There were also protests by workers at a ceramic factory, a textile
factory and at least two banks, as Egyptians emboldened by the
autocrat’s fall sought to improve their lot in a country where poverty
and other challenges will take years or decades to address.
Troops took down makeshift tents and made some headway in dispersing
protesters who didn’t want to abandon their encampment in Tahrir,
fearful that the generals entrusted with a transition to democratic rule
would not fulfill all their pledges.
Still, the crowds of protesters were thinning out, and traffic moved
through the area for the first time. Many local residents shouted at the
protesters that it was time to go.
The crowd on the square, the center of protests during the 18- day
uprising, was down from a peak of a quarter-million at the height of the
demonstrations to about 10,000 on Sunday.
The Armed Forces Supreme Council is now the official ruler of Egypt
since Mubarak handed it power. It consists of the commanders of each
military branch, the chief of staff and Tantawi, who is now the de facto
leader of Egypt.
The military took power after pleas from protesters, and it has promised
to ensure democratic change. The institution, however, was tightly
bound to Mubarak’s ruling system, and it has substantial economic
interests that it will likely seek to preserve.
Egypt’s state news agency said banks would be closed Monday due to strikes and Tuesday for a public holiday.