Thousands of Egyptians rallied in Cairo and other cities on Friday to demand the military give up power and vent their anger after 17 people were killed in protests where troops beat and clubbed women and men even as they lay on the ground.
One image in particular from the five days of clashes that ended this week had stoked their fury: that of soldiers dragging a woman lying on the street so that her bra and torso were exposed, while clubbing and stamping on her.
“Anyone who saw her and saw her pain would come to Tahrir. Those who did this should be tried. We can’t bear this humiliation and abuse,” Omar Adel, 27, said in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Some protesters had been demanding the army bring forward a presidential vote to as early as Jan. 25, the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak, or at least much earlier than the mid-2012 handover now scheduled.
But other Egyptians fret that 10 months after Mubarak’s downfall Egypt remained in disarray. They want protests to stop so order could be restored and the economy revitalised, voicing such views in a smaller protest in another part of Cairo.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s party, leading in a staggered parliamentary election that runs to January and is Egypt’s first free vote in six decades, said it would not join Friday’s rally. It also supports the army’s schedule and says the process must be decided by balloting, not street pressure.
Demonstrators in Tahrir chanted, “Down with military rule.”
Nearby, new concrete walls bar access from Tahrir to the cabinet, parliament and Interior Ministry, areas where clashes flared in November and December. The November death toll was 42.
By early afternoon, the Tahrir protest was still relatively modest compared to some of the huge rallies since Mubarak’s ouster.
In the Northern city of Alexandria, thousands marched towards an army base chanting: “Women of Egypt raise your heads, you are more noble than those who stamp on you.”
Other small rallies to protest the treatment of women were staged in other cities around Egypt, according to witnesses.
The army had said it regretted the violence in Tahrir and offered an apology over the woman who was beaten, saying the case was isolated and under investigation.
But the military was drawing fierce criticism from many political parties and groups.
“The current predicament we have reached is a result of the army council’s reluctance to play its role, its intentional foot-dragging, breaking its obligations and failing over the economy and security, putting the whole country on the edge of a huge crisis,” two dozen parties and groups said in a statement.
It said members of the military council, which is led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, should be held to account out of respect for those killed and women who were mistreated.
“Tantawi undressed our daughters, he should be executed,” said Samah Ibrahim, 40, a woman protesting in Tahrir.
Students also appealed to Egyptians to join Friday’s protest after two students from Cairo’s Ain Shams University were among those killed. The deaths prompted sit-ins on Ain Shams campus, in front of the Defence Ministry, and at other universities.
While the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) said it would stay out of Friday’s rally, the ultraconservative Salafist al-Nour Party, a surprise runner-up in the election so far, said on its Facebook page that it would take part.
Many activists accuse the Brotherhood and other Islamists of betraying the protest movement in order to secure their own positions in the emerging new power structure.
The FJP said on its Facebook page it would not participate although it said it was “the right of the Egyptian people to protest and demonstrate peacefully”.
“The party emphasises the need for the handover of power to civilians according to the will of the Egyptian people through free and fair elections in a stable environment,” said Mohamed al-Katatni, a senior member of the FJP.
His remarks indicated the group was sticking to the army’s timetable to hold a presidential vote in June. The Brotherhood has said bringing the vote forward could “create chaos”.
Those views were echoed a short distance from Tahrir where hundreds of Egyptians backed the army, chanting: “We support the military council staying until the presidential election.”
The Brotherhood’ stance reflected a wish to shape the new constitution before a presidential vote, seeking more influence for parliament where it is doing well thanks to a well-organised grassroots network, and reining in powers of the president.
An earlier presidential vote would not necessarily eliminate the military’s dominance in a new civilian-governed state.
The military has survived Egypt’s political upheaval intact and has vast economic and other interests, so any new president would likely need its support to maintain order.
The U.S., which provides the military with 1.3 billion dollars a year in aid, a deal in place since Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, has rebuked the ruling generals for their rough handling of protests and women.
Washington, which like other Western powers long looked to Mubarak to keep a lid on Islamists, has been cultivating contact with newly elected Islamist politicians.
Parliament’s primary role would be in picking a 100-strong assembly that will write the new constitution.
Unrest in Tahrir that has gone on since November, 18 was stirred by resentment over proposals by the army-backed cabinet for articles in the new constitution that would have permanently shielded the military from civilian oversight.