Egypt army hikes tone against protesters
Cairo - Egypt's ruling military escalated its tone against pro-democracy activists on Wednesday, warning of an attempt to "topple the state", as government media said a plot had been uncovered to use upcoming protests to throw the country into a civil war.
The statements stepped up a campaign by the military that has seemed intended to demonise protesters in the eyes of the Egyptian public. The warnings could signal a heavier crackdown on activists who demand that the generals who took power after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February step down to let civilians rule.
They come after more than four days of heavy clashes as soldiers tried to break up protests outside parliament and the Cabinet headquarters in a crackdown that killed 14 people and left hundreds injured. The fighting eased on Tuesday, but the atmosphere in Egypt's already stormy transition has become even more bitter and confused.
The generals and the pro-democracy activists who led the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak are locked in a worsening confrontation. Some activists have put forward proposals to try to defuse the clash by having the military hand over power in January, either to the head of the next parliament or by holding early presidential elections to choose a new head of state to replace the generals.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, announced that parliament would convene January 23, just two days before the one-year anniversary of the start of Egypt's uprising, according to the state news agency. It appeared to be a move aimed at blunting an expected mass demonstration on January 25.
Meanwhile, the country's other power player, the Muslim Brotherhood, which took part in the uprising that toppled Mubarak, has stayed out of the fray, refusing to join protests or to back demands that military move up its planned handover of power in June. Their stance weakens the political pressure on the military and bolsters the generals' hands - even though the Brotherhood insists it wants the army to eventually step aside.
Instead, the fundamentalist Brotherhood has been focused on ongoing, multistage parliamentary elections, which it is dominating. Its main concern is to try to ensure the power of the new legislature, in which it will be the biggest faction, giving it a strong hand in writing the next constitution.
"We don't get into conflict with anybody. We don't believe in this policy (of protests). Any clash is a pure evil. We don't have any interest in confrontation," said Sobhi Saleh, a leading Brotherhood figure who won a parliament seat in an earlier round of the elections.
Heavy US criticism
The army's crackdown has drawn heavy US criticism, particularly after soldiers beat women protesters and stripped one half naked in the streets. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called treatment of the women a "disgrace", and on Wednesday the State Department said she spoke by phone to Egypt's prime minister to register deep US concerns.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr said Egypt "won't accept any foreign interference ... whether from the United States or anybody else".
On Wednesday, the ruling military council issued a statement on its Facebook page saying more protests are aimed at "toppling the state".
A harsher warning came from an unidentified high-ranking intelligence official quoted in the state news agency as saying authorities uncovered a plot to "drag the pure youth and losers in the parliamentary elections into foiling the parliament elections and toppling the army and the state".
The official said authorities tracked down "communications and moves" aimed at throwing the country into a "civil war between the people and the army" to give foreign forces justification to intervene.
In an implicit warning against protests, the official urged young people not to "get involved in this plot".
At the same time, Justice Minister Adel Abdel-Hamid accused around 300 non-governmental organisations of receiving unauthorised foreign funding and using the money to encourage protesters.
'We saw this coming'
Hossam el-Hamalawy, a prominent activist who long campaigned against Mubarak and has been highly critical of the military rulers, said the statements could signal new arrests against revolutionary groups.
His group, the Revolutionary Socialists, which organises labour movements, has come under criticism in state media after footage of a group meeting showed a member saying popular pressure must be built against the military to remove Mubarak's loyalists.
"We saw this coming a while ago. It is increasing as other political forces are withdrawing from the streets. We are more on the ground," he said. "That is not going to intimidate us."
"The military is the backbone of the dictatorship. They are the ones who run this country since 1952," he said.
Under the military's timetable, a new constitution will be written after parliament convenes in March, then once it is approved, presidential elections would be held and the military would cede power to the winner by the end of June.
In recent days, a number of pro-revolutionary groups put forward proposals that the military council cede its position as head of state in January. Under one initiative, it would surrender its powers to the speaker of parliament. Under another, presidential elections would be moved up to January.
The Brotherhood's political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, issued a statement rejecting both options. Instead, it called for "full-throttle efforts to complete the legislative elections".
The Brotherhood worries that moving up presidential elections could undermine its efforts to concentrate future power in the parliament.
After two rounds of voting, the Brotherhood is on track to gain around 40-50% of the parliament's seats, and the more conservative Salafi movement's main Al-Nur Party has so far won more than 20%, setting the stage for an Islamist majority in the new legislature. On Wednesday, voting was held in a run-off for the second of the election's three rounds to determine the winner in districts where no candidate won 50%.
The Brotherhood is counting on the new parliament to have considerable political power to eclipse the military until its handover. In the drafting of the new constitution, the Brotherhood wants to curtail the powers of the president, which were nearly unlimited under Mubarak, and give parliament greater authority.
The group fears that electing the president before rewriting the constitution will bring a head of state with the same overwhelming power.
"Will (the president) have the same pharaonic powers as Hosni Mubarak had? How do we guarantee that this doesn't impact the transition to democracy?" said Wahid Abdel-Meguid, leading member of the Brotherhood-led alliance.
But Islam Lutfi, a former Brotherhood member whose political party backs the initiatives for an early military exit, said the Brotherhood has no clear plan for ensuring the army steps down.
"They are scared of the military," said Lutfi, a founder of the Egyptian Current Party. "They are only hungry for the parliament."