CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s military delivered an ultimatum on Monday to dozens of committed protesters in Tahrir Square, nerve-center of a movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak, to leave and let life get back to normal or face arrest.
Soldiers scuffled with protesters on Sunday as the army ensured traffic flowed through the central Cairo square. Some protesters insisted on staying, determined to see through their demands for civilian rule and a free, democratic system.
“We have half an hour left, we are cordoned by military police,” protester Yahya Saqr told Reuters. “We are discussing what to do now,” he said, adding that a senior officer “told us we have one hour to empty the square or we will be arrested.”
Protest leaders say Egyptians will demonstrate again if their demands for radical change are not met. They plan a huge “Victory March” on Friday to celebrate the revolution, and perhaps remind the military of the power of the street.
Egypt’s generals are asserting their command over the country following the overthrow of Mubarak.
Having suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament on Sunday, moves welcomed by those who saw both institutions as perverted to Mubarak’s personal ends, the military council was planning to issue orders intended to stifle further disruption and get the country back to work, a military source said.
Disgruntled employees are already pressing for better deals. The interim military rulers called a Bank Holiday on Monday after disruption in the banking sector and there is a national holiday on Tuesday to mark the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.
Free and fair elections will be held under a revised constitution, the military said, but it gave no timetable beyond saying that it would be in charge “for a temporary period of six months or until the end of elections to the upper and lower houses of parliament, and presidential elections”.
Nor did it detail what civilian or other participation there would be in amending basic laws during the transition. The cabinet appointed by Mubarak last month will go on governing, reporting to the army chiefs.
The 18-day revolt against Mubarak’s 30-year rule has spawned a rash of protests by workers and even police.
Hundreds of employees demonstrated outside a branch of Bank of Alexandria in downtown Cairo on Monday, urging their bosses to “Leave, leave”, echoing an anti-Mubarak slogan.
Protests, sit-ins and strikes have occurred at state-owned institutions across Egypt, including the stock exchange, textile and steel firms, media organizations, the postal service, railways, the Culture Ministry and the Health Ministry.
Workers cite an array of grievances. What unites them is a new sense of being able to speak out in the post-Mubarak era.
“Finally we have been encouraged to come out and speak,” said Hala Fawzi, a 34-year-old mother of two protesting on Sunday outside the offices of the state-owned insurance company where she works for a pittance. “We want equality,” she said.
The army, however, is keen to get Egypt working again to restart an economy which was damaged by the momentous events and to bring back tourists and attract foreign investment.
It will be aware of the turmoil still roiling Tunisia, where an uprising that unseated another aging Arab autocrat last month inspired Egyptians to take to the streets.
The army source said military authorities were expected to issue an order soon that would ban meetings by labor unions or professional syndicates, effectively forbidding strikes, and would tell all Egyptians to get back to work.
There will also be a warning from the military against those who create “chaos and disorder”, the source said, adding the army would, however, acknowledge the right to protest.
After three weeks of economic dislocation, millions of Egyptians are keen to start earning again to survive.
In Tahrir Square, Jihad Laban, an accountant, said much work remained to make sure the revolution did not squander its gains.
“The goal was never just to get rid of Mubarak. The system is totally corrupt and we won’t go until we see some real reforms,” said Jihad Laban, an accountant. “I am going to be buried in Tahrir. I am here for my children.”
After six decades underpinning presidents who have all been drawn from its ranks, the army can still draw on public respect. Troops and tanks have been on the streets since January 28, but took no action to crush protests after police failed to do so.
“The two big questions now are who is going to be on the constitutional committee to redraft (the constitution), and are there any guarantees that what they come up with is then going to be deemed the way ahead,” said Rosemary Hollis, professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University London.
Many opposition figures were pleased with the army’s first steps. “It is a victory for the revolution,” said Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak for the presidency in 2005 and was later jailed. “I think this will satisfy the protesters.”
They have demanded the release of political prisoners, the lifting of a state of emergency, the abolition of military courts, fair elections and a swift handover to civilian rule.
The army has said it will lift emergency law, used to stifle dissent under Mubarak, but it has not specified a timetable.
“There are still a lot of grey areas, but it is clear that these decisions are opening the door for an entirely new system to come to order,” said Hassan Abu Taleb of Cairo’s Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
Any transition to democracy will be fraught with difficulty, and old ways of doing things may die hard in a country where the ruling party routinely rigged elections and candidates used bribery, hired thugs and dirty tricks to ensure victory.
Existing registered parties are mostly small, weak and fragmented. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which under the now suspended constitution could not form a party, may be the best organized group, but its true popularity has yet to be tested.
Its strength worries some in the United States, a key backer of Mubarak, as well as in Israel, for which Mubarak’s Egypt was an important ally in an predominantly hostile Arab region.
On Saturday, the army said it would uphold Egypt’s international obligations. These include a peace treaty with Israel, whose defense minister has been in touch with his Egyptian counterpart, who heads the military council.
Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq said at the weekend that Mubarak was in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and that the cabinet had made no request to freeze his assets abroad.