Marginalised for years, Coptic Christians struggle to define their status as a new government takes shape.
Egypt’s military ruler has warned of “extremely grave” consequences if the country does not pull through its current crisis, and urged voters to turn out for landmark parliamentary elections starting on Monday.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads the governing Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), claimed on Sunday that “foreign hands” were behind the current turmoil.
In comments carried by the nation’s official news agency, Tantawi rejected calls for him and other generals on the SCAF to step down immediately.
Tantawi also promised the creation of a 50-member advisory council that would advise the SCAF.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros reported from Cairo that the advisory council was “essentially it’s an eleventh hour concession” aiming to calm the mood on the eve of this election.
“The problem is that it doesn’t appear to have any sort of defined mandate, and it doesn’t appear to have any sort of defined powers,” she said, noting that the SCAF does not have a good track record of heeding advice from civilian groups.
The warning came as thousands of protesters were filling Cairo’s Tahrir Square for another massive demonstration to push for him and the other generals to immediately return to their barracks in favour of a civilian presidential council and a “national salvation” government to run the country’s affairs until a president is elected.
“There’s a certain amount of excitement, these are billed as the first free and fair elections that Egyptians have seen in over 50 years,” Tadros reported.
At the same time, Egyptians there were are fears of violence at polling stations, and widespread confusion about the complicated voting system, she said.
Wave of unrest
Sunday was the ninth straight day of a revival of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak in February. At least 41 protesters have been killed in and more than 2,000 have been wounded, most of them in Cairo, in the latest wave of unrest.
The military took the reins of power when Mubarak was toppled. However, it has come under intense criticism for most of the past nine months for its failure to restore security, stop the rapid worsening of the economy or introduce the far-reaching reforms called for by the youth groups behind Mubarak’s fall and the ongoing protest movement.
Tantawi said the military will follow through with its somewhat vague road map for handing over power.
The SCAF never set a precise date for transferring authority to an elected civilian administration, only pledging that presidential elections – the last step in the handover process – will be held before the end of June, 2012.
“We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections,” Tantawi said on Sunday.
“Egypt is at a crossroads – either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that.”
“None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands.”
Apparently alluding to the protesters in Tahrir Square, Tantawi said: “We will not allow a small minority of people who don’t understand to harm Egypt’s stability.”
Tantawi’s assertion is similar to those made by Mubarak in his final days in power. Tantawi was Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years.
Sunday’s rally, Legitimacy of the Revolution, will follow more than a week of protests in the centre of Cairo, where demonstrators have been calling for the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand power to a civilian government.
Amid the preparations for the rally, Mohamed ElBaradei, a prospective Egyptian presidential candidate, announced he would drop his bid to be head of state if SCAF allowed him to become the interim prime minister.
ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear agency, said he was “willing to respond to the demands of the youth of the revolution and the political forces calling for a national salvation government that represents all the national forces”.
His statement comes amid an eruption of political upheaval, with anti-military rallies threatening to eclipse Monday’s parliamentary elections, which are to be held over a three-month period.
Egyptian state television on Sunday aired pictures of ElBaradei meeting Tantawi the previous day.
Egypt’s interim government, led by Essam Sharaf, resigned last week as protests against army rule intensified in Cairo and other cities.
The military has said the next parliament will have limited powers, and suggested that it will retain the right to appoint and dismiss the cabinet.
“The next parliament will have no power,” Said Younis, an accountant, argued in Tahrir. “What we want is a salvation government or even a revolutionary government.”
Heavy limitations on the next parliament undermine the very relevance of the vote. If the military clings to its status, there are likely to be stormy negotiations over the formation of a government, and the protesters will try to influence events by bringing numbers to the streets.
— With additional reporting from Malika Bilal