Egypt’s generals wait in the wings as battle for democracy sours

Peter Beaumont reports: There is a narrow footbridge overlooking the entrance to the ministry of defence in the Abbasiya district of Cairo. On Friday afternoon, this crowded bridge provided the best view of the frontline in the latest round of violent clashes between the army and demonstrators who suspect the country’s ruling generals of wanting to hold on to power.

On one side of a ring of barbed wire, soldiers hurled bricks and fired tear gas. Below the bridge, the protesters facing the soldiers threw their own missiles, while others removed the injured on motorbikes or carried them limp on their shoulders, some insensible, others spattered in blood.

I bumped into Hazem Abdel Rahman, a young protester, drenched in sweat, holding his injured arm. “I came here this morning and everything was peaceful. People linked arms to keep the crowd back from the ministry of defence. But then after Friday prayers people came who we did not know and infiltrated our demonstration and started throwing stones,” he said.

Others say the trouble started after some protesters were grabbed by the soldiers trying to cross the wire. A few minutes after I spoke to Hazem, the first sound of live gunfire rang out, driving the protesters back in panic. I ran, but found myself trapped between two groups of soldiers, forced to climb several walls and cross a railway line to escape, only to be confronted by an angry group of supporters of the military.

“You are a spy,” one shouted, attempting to drag me away for questioning, prevented in his efforts by the intervention of other residents. Other journalists covering events in Abbasiya in the last few days have not been so fortunate. Eighteen have been arrested or injured, including one who reportedly had an ear cut off during an attack.

Egypt’s long-awaited presidential elections – the first round of which begins on 23 May – appear to be unravelling amid rising violence and protest. By the end of Friday, two people were dead, including a soldier; hundreds had been injured or arrested; and a curfew had been imposed by the army in the area where the violence was worst.

Once again, the most significant faultline of the protests – one that threatens to overshadow the election campaign – has been the growing rift between the generals and the political parties who would replace them when – or rather if – the army relinquishes power, as it has promised to do, on 30 June.

Some of those out protesting on Friday have special reason to despise them. In Tahrir Square a few hours before the violent dispersal of the protest in Abbasiya, I had met Mohammed Atta, a 45-year-old tour guide. He had been in Abbasiya on Wednesday and witnessed the baltagiya – well-organised gangs of armed thugs – attack a sit-in dominated by ultra-conservative Salafi Muslims and supported by revolutionaries, outside the defence ministry. That day at least 11 people died, many shot in the head at close quarters.

I encountered Atta attending a protest in the square called by the Muslim Brotherhood to protest at those killings. “I was in the middle of the street [in Abbasiya] when they came in from one end,” Atta recalled. “I saw them come out from where the police were.”

Atta fled, chased by 12 men. He left behind him the body of his murdered friend, Atif al-Gohary, a 41-year-old chef. “He went over to talk to them, to ask them to be peaceful,” he recalled. Instead, al-Gohary was shot in the chest and his face was stamped in.

“He was like a brother to me. He taught me about revolution. On 25 January last year when I came here to Tahrir Square at the beginning of the revolution, I was afraid to go beyond the police lines. But he called me down to join him and told me not to be afraid.”

Atta had come to Tahrir Square on Friday to participate in the millioneya – the million-man protest organised by the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties to call on Egypt’s military council, which has ruled since the fall of dictator Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago, to keep its promise and stand down.

But if the Brotherhood had hoped to pack the square that became the symbol of the resistance to both the Mubarak regime and military rule, they were to be disappointed, despite bussing in supporters from hundreds of miles away. The Brotherhood, once regarded as Egypt’s most organised and potent political force, has begun to wane. [Continue reading…]

Egypt Independent reports: As the race heats up between the nation’s two leading Islamist presidential candidates, the Muslim Brotherhood is mixing its new-found political rhetoric with the more comfortable — and potentially popular — religious discourse that dominated the group for generations.

Observers believe that the revival of the Brotherhood’s religious discourse reflects the group’s confusion and threatens the tenuous trust it is building with secular Egyptians and the West.

Since he launched his campaign, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohamed Morsy, affirmed his commitment to the group’s “Nahda” (renaissance) political platform, which seeks to establish democracy, ensure equality and justice and improve the general welfare. But at campaign rallies, Morsy’s campaign often strays from these terrestrial aims.

Besides his constant pledge to implement God’s Sharia, Morsy has been touring the country with backers who portray him as the sole Islamist candidate invoking an overtly religious language. His cheerleaders have tweaked the revolution’s famous slogan, “The people want to bring down the regime” into “The people want God’s Sharia to be implemented.”

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