Tahrir protesters to sit-in until army steps down

Crowds broadly split between youths demanding the army cede control to civilians immediately and Islamists.

By OREN KESSLER
January 27, 2012 01:41
4 minute read.
First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir

First anniversary of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square 390. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Egyptian youths camped out on Thursday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and vowed to stay put until the army hands power to civilians, a day after a mass demonstration marked a year since an uprising which brought down Hosni Mubarak.

Tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the square and onto streets of other cities for the January 25 anniversary of the day the revolt began. Also Thursday, military authorities told several American pro-democracy activists – including the son of a member of US President Barack Obama’s cabinet – they cannot leave the country. One of those affected described the move as a “de facto detention.”

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Officials at two prominent US-funded NGOs said 10 of their staff members have been instructed to stay in Egypt.

They said the orders were related to Egyptian judicial investigations launched last month into a number of NGOs for alleged violations of rules relating to the registration of organizations in the country.

Thursday’s Tahrir crowds were broadly split between youths demanding the army cede control to civilians immediately and Islamists celebrating a political transformation that has handed them sweeping gains in parliament after decades of repression.

In the past, sit-ins sparked violence when the police and army have sought to clear protesters out, but on Thursday the scene was peaceful.

Scores of youths occupied the square surrounded by dozens of tents pitched on traffic islands. Vendors sold hot drinks and some activists huddled around open fires to keep warm in the morning air.

“The military council commits the same abuses Mubarak committed. I don’t feel any change. The military council is leading a counter-revolution.

We will protest until the military council goes,” said 23- year-old student Samer Qabil.

The army council took over when Mubarak was ousted and is led by Egypt’s defense minister for two decades, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The council has insisted it will hand power to civilians after a presidential election in June.

But many activists say they fear it wants to hold onto power behind the scenes.

Although troops were cheered when they were ordered onto the streets in the uprising, they have since drawn the wrath of many for heavy-handed tactics against protests demanding they go back to barracks.

In Alexandria, a Mediterranean port that is Egypt’s second- biggest city, about 100 protesters had also set up tents late on Wednesday near police headquarters, demanding the army hand over power immediately.

The army and police kept their distance from the square during Wednesday’s demonstration in an apparent effort to ensure there was no cause for friction.

The United States, which gives $1.3 billion a year in aid to Egypt’s military, reacted sharply when the Egyptian authorities swooped in on some 17 NGOs in December.

The US had hinted that the military aid could be reviewed if the raids continued.

Among those now prevented from leaving the country is Sam LaHood, Egypt director of the International Republican Institute (IRI), whose father Ray LaHood is US Transportation Secretary.

“We have received verbal notification that six NDI staff, three of them Americans, have been served travel bans,” said director of the National Democratic Institute in Egypt Julie Hughes, adding that she expected a formal written notification on Sunday.

The judges investigating the case have charged the four members of the IRI with managing an unregistered NGO and being paid employees of an unregistered organization, charges that could carry up to five years in jail, one NGO member said.

The IRI made no immediate comment.

Both the NDI and IRI receive some of their funding from US government agencies and, while not formally part of the two main US political parties, each has loose affiliations with either the Republican or Democratic party.

Sam LaHood had tried to fly out from Cairo on Saturday and was told that he could not leave, one NGO official said. In addition to him, the order affects five IRI staff, including three Americans.

On Thursday former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi said neither Israeli nor Egyptian intelligence had been able to foresee last year’s revolution.

“Frankly, we didn’t see this coming. It happened on my watch, and we didn’t see it coming. The Egyptians didn’t know, either,” Ashkenazi said at a conference at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Ashkenazi recalled that just weeks before the January 25, 2011, mass rallies, Egypt’s then-intelligence chief Omar Suleiman visited Israel and spoke with officials over who might succeed the octogenarian Mubarak. Ashkenazi recalled the intelligence chief quipping, “Whoever’s elected doesn’t matter – all that matters is who’s counting the votes.”

Channel 2 Arab affairs analyst Ehud Yaari told the conference both Egypt and Israel have interests in maintaining the 1979 peace treaty between them. He said the treaty should be maintained exactly in its current form, though Egypt should raise troop levels in the increasingly lawless Sinai Peninsula – a measure already allowed for in the existing treaty.

Yaari said the new Egypt, with its Islamist-dominated parliament, presents complications to Israeli policymakers the likes of which they haven’t known in decades: “We have to handle this new situation the same way hedgehogs make love: slowly and with a lot of caution.”

Reuters contributed to this report.


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