Cairo crisis grows as cabinet quits
Publisher: The Financial Times, UK
Author: By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Story date: 21/11/2011
Language: English

Essam Sharaf, the Egyptian prime minister, submitted the resignation of his government on Monday, plunging the country deeper into crisis.

The death toll in fighting between protesters and police has risen to 33 and thousands massed in Cairo's Tahrir square demanding an end to military rule.

Egypt's military council was seeking agreement on a new prime minister before it accepted the resignation submitted by the cabinet of Mr Sharaf, a military official told Reuters news agency. The official said that no formal announcement would be made until the ruling military council had agreed on the candidate.

The resignation and the continuing bloodshed in the capital called into question the holding of multi-stage parliamentary elections scheduled to start on November 28.

The poll, which would be the country's first since the popular revolt that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the former president, is a crucial step in the democratic transformation of the Arab world's most populous nation as it seeks to shed the legacy of decades of dictatorship.

The US urged Egypt on Monday to go ahead with the elections despite the flare up of violence. It urged restraint on all sides. "The United States continues to believe that these tragic events should not stand in the way of elections," said Jay Carney, White House spokesman.

In an effort to absorb popular anger, the ruling military council hurriedly signed a long-promised decree on Monday barring "those who corrupted political life" under the Mubarak regime from running for election. The legislation, which came too late to make an impact on this month's election, was a small concession that failed to mitigate what has turned into the biggest political disaster facing the council since it took power nine months ago.

On Monday night fighting continued on a street leading from Tahrir Square to the fortress-like headquarters of the interior ministry. Riot police fired teargas, rubber bullets and buckshot at young men determined to block security forces from marching on the square to evict protesters there.

A Molotov cocktail in his hand, Islam, a young hotel receptionist, hurried down a narrow alley strewn with rotting garbage behind Tahrir square, heading towards a nearby street where protestors have been battling police for three days.

"I am armed with this because I am defending myself," he said as fumes of teargas filled the air. "They have killed many of us and they have guns and we don't. We don't want them to keep on coming back to attack us in the square."

Having failed repeatedly to clear Tahrir square, the council faces difficult choices: they can use greater force to end the standoff, potentially leading to more anger, or make political sacrifices which the generals appear reluctant to make.

The crisis, analysts say, is a reflection of a mounting loss of confidence in the stewardship of the generals, who promised a democratic transition but revived Mr Mubarak's emergency law and tried thousands of people, including activists, before military courts.

Instead of dismantling the structures of repression which underpinned the Mubarak state, they have balked at police reform and only reluctantly agreed to flimsy changes removing those linked to the former regime from their positions.

"The council appears more of an extension of the old regime rather than as a trusted agent authorised by the people to run a transition," said Hassan Nafea, a professor of political science. "Their reforms have been superficial and not up to the ambitions of a people who carried out a revolution. They know that real change is needed, but they don't want it."

Several politicians, including Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Laureate and presidential candidate, have proposed that the council appoint a strong national unity government empowered to take steps to reform the security services and get the economy back on its feet.

For the protestors enraged by the bloodshed of the past three days and now determined to bring down the council, the crisis has now assumed the dynamics of a vendetta. The initial use of overwhelming force to clear a protest camp on Saturday galvanized fury against the country's rulers and its police and now every new death entrenches the feud with the authorities.

"They have been shooting at our faces," said Hassan al Guindi, a screenwriter who received two buckshot pellets in the face and leg on Monday, but stayed on to fight. "They are supposed to shoot at people's legs to disperse them, but it's all at face level. They want us to get tired and leave, but we won't."

In a narrow street behind the square, anger and grief making his voice shake, Saieed, an oil worker, pointed to large patch of blood on the ground. He brandished a digital camera showing pictures of two bodies slumped on the street outside a shop. A close up revealed the bloodied face of a young man apparently shot around the mouth.

"It happened just an hour ago. We were running away with an injured man, when we heard a shot and someone behind fell," said Saieed. "One of us rushed to help him, but he too was shot down. I was planning to return to my job on Wednesday, but now I am staying, so that their blood would not have been shed in vain."

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