CAIRO - Egyptian riot police and protesters observed a truce on Thursday after violence that has killed 39 people in five days and the army said parliamentary elections would start on time next week.
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Demonstrations by thousands of Egyptians furious at the slow transfer of power by military leadership to civilian rule have led to violent clashes with police, in scenes similar to the popular uprising that toppled leader Hosni Mubarak in February.
Protesters have vowed not to leave Cairo's central Tahrir Square, which once again has become the cradle of public protest in the most populous Arab country, until army rule ends.
The demonstrations appear to have polarized Egyptians, many of whom worry that unrest will prolong economic stagnation.
In new blows to confidence, the Egyptian pound weakened to more than 6 to the dollar for the first time since January 2005, and Standard & Poor's lowered its rating on Egypt.
The agency cut Egypt's long-term, foreign- and local-currency sovereign credit ratings to B+ from BB-, saying a "weak political and economic profile" had worsened further.
Egypt's ruling army council said it was doing all it could to prevent more violence. In a statement, it apologized, offered condolences and compensation to families of the dead, and promised a swift investigation into who was behind the unrest.The elections must go on
A ruling council member, General Mamdouh Shaheen, told a news conference the parliamentary vote, whose first stage is due to begin on Monday, would go ahead on time. "We will not delay elections. This is the final word," he said.
Another council member, Major-General Mokhtar al-Mullah, took a swipe at the demonstrators. "If we look at those in Tahrir, regardless of their number, they do not represent the Egyptian people, but we must respect their opinion," he said.
Mullah said the army hoped to form a new government before Monday to
replace Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet, which resigned during
this week's violence without giving a reason.
Demonstrators in Tahrir said the truce had taken hold from midnight.
Cranes hauled concrete barriers, later reinforced with barbed wire,
across streets leading to the nearby Interior Ministry, flashpoint for
much of the recent violence.
"Since about midnight or 1 a.m. there were no more clashes. We are
standing here to ensure no one goes inside the cordon," said Mohamed
Mustafa, 50, among a group barring a street nearby.
They were guarding a barricade made of a broken metal fence, a telephone booth laid on its side and part of a lamp post.
At the other end of the street, littered with shattered glass, lumps of
concrete and heaps of rubbish, at least two army armored personnel
carriers blocked the route. Mustafa's group said police were on the
front line, and behind them the army.
Lines of Tahrir protesters manned similar barriers to block access to Mohamed Mahmoud Street, scene of repeated fighting.
"We have created a space separating us from the police. We are standing
here to make sure no one violates it," said Mahmoud Adly, 42, part of a
human cordon four ranks deep.
The protests in Cairo and elsewhere pose the gravest challenge to
Egypt's army rulers since they took over from Mubarak, overthrown on
Feb. 11 after an 18-day uprising.
The thousands who thronged Tahrir Square were undeterred in their
determination to rid Egypt of army rule. "He goes, we won't," declared a
banner referring to the army commander, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein
The United States and European nations, alarmed at the violence of the
past few days, have urged Egypt to proceed with what has been billed as
its first free vote in decades.Who's afraid of the big bad military?
The army and the Muslim Brotherhood, which expects to do well in the
polls, say it must go ahead, but many protesters do not trust the
military to oversee a clean vote. Some scorn the Brotherhood for its
focus on gaining seats in parliament.
The military council originally promised to return to barracks within
six months, but then set a timetable for elections and drawing up a new
constitution that would have left it in power until late next year or
Tantawi pledged this week to hold a presidential vote in June that could
pave the way for a transfer to civilian rule, but the demonstrators,
angered by army attempts to shield itself legally from future civilian
control, are unconvinced.
"The military council must leave and hand power to civilians. They don't
want to leave so that their corruption isn't exposed," said 23-year-old
student Ahmed Essam.
Before the truce, protesters had fought running battles with security
forces around the Interior Ministry. The bloody chaos there contrasted
with normal life in streets nearby.