CAIRO, (Reuters) – Pro-democracy activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square vowed on Saturday to stay there until the Higher Military Council now running Egypt after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak accepts their agenda for democratic reform.
Crowds celebrated in the square while organisers urged the army to meet demands including the dissolution of a fraudulently elected parliament and the lifting of a 30-year-old state of emergency used by Mubarak to crush opposition and dissent.
“The army is with us but it must realise our demands. Half revolutions kill nations,” pharmacist Ghada Elmasalmy, 43, told Reuters. “Now we know our place, whenever there is injustice, we will come to Tahrir Square.”
It remained to be seen what appetite the high command had for a quick transition to parliamentary democracy in a nation that traces its history back to the pharaohs 5,000 years ago and has been transformed by the upheaval of an 18-day uprising.
Throughout the Middle East, autocratic rulers were calculating their chances of survival after Mubarak, 82, was forced from power in a political earthquake that has shaken the region and caused concern in the United States and its allies.
In a statement that aimed to reassure Washington and Israel, with whom Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, the army said it intended to respect all existing treaties. Saudi Arabia said it welcomed the peaceful transition of power in Egypt.
In Sanaa, a protest by some 2,000 people inspired by the Egyptian revolt broke up after clashes with pro-government demonstrators armed with knives and batons. In Algiers thousands of police stopped government opponents from staging a march.
Mubarak was believed to be at his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, his future unclear.
Al Arabiya television said the army would soon dismiss the cabinet and suspend parliament. The head of the Constitutional Court would join the leadership with the military council, which was given the job of running the country of 80 million people.
Despite misgivings about military rule, the best deterrent to any military attempt to maintain dominance could be the street power and energy of protesters nationwide who swept out Mubarak because he governed without their consent.
The first priority in Egypt was restoring law and order before the start of the working week starting on Sunday. Army tanks and soldiers stayed on the streets guarding intersections and key buildings after the disgraced police force melted away.
With the threat of confrontation between the army and protesters now gone, Cairo residents took photographs of each other holding flowers with smiling soldiers at roadblocks to record the first day of a new post-Mubarak era.
People were buying bundles of state-owned newspapers proclaiming “The Revolution of the Youths forced Mubarak to leave” with pictures of celebrations to keep as treasured souvenirs of this landmark in Egypt’s history.
The army dismantled checkpoints on Saturday around Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the protest movement, and some makeshift barricades were being removed. Volunteers cleaned up while a carnival atmosphere lingered.
Egyptians were desperate to restore normality and get back to work after the tumult, which claimed about 300 or more lives, damaged the nation’s economy.
LIVE ROUNDS AND CAMEL CHARGES
Eighteen days of rallies, resisting police assaults, rubber bullets, live rounds and a last-ditch charge by pro-Mubarak hardliners on camels, brought undreamed-of success. Some veteran protesters took down their tents; others were staying on.
“This is the start of the revolution, it’s not over yet, but I have to go back to work,” said Mohammed Saeed, 30, who was packing away his tent.
Mohammed Farrag, 31, who was also decamping after 18 days, said he believed stability was returning. “But, at the end of the day, we will not give up on Egypt as a civilian state, not a military state,” he said.
“If things move away from our demands, we will go into the street again, even if we have to die as martyrs.”
Many wanted to see the immediate end to emergency laws.
“People’s Communique No. 1,” issued by the protest organisers, demands the dissolution of the cabinet Mubarak appointed on January 29 and the suspension of the parliament elected in a rigged vote late last year.
The reformists want a transitional five-member presidential council made up of four civilians and one military person.
The communique calls for the formation of a transitional government to prepare for an election to take place within nine months, and of a body to draft a new democratic constitution.
It demands freedom for the media and syndicates, which represent groups such as lawyers, doctors and engineers, and for the formation of political parties. Military and emergency courts must be scrapped, the communique says.
NO CLEAR LEADER
Egypt’s opposition had been throttled by emergency rule imposed after Mubarak succeeded Anwar Sadat, shot dead by an Islamist army officer in 1981, and there has been no obvious Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa to spearhead Egypt’s revolution.
Among possible leaders was Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in the most recent presidential election and was later charged with forgery and jailed for three years in what Nour said was a politically motivated case.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, has often won Arab public support for his outspoken comments. Moussa said on Friday he would leave the pan-Arab body which he headed for about 10 years within weeks.
There were also some popular members from the Muslim Brotherhood group and other opposition parties. It was still unclear if any of the anonymous youth leaders behind the well-organised revolt wanted or would be allowed to hold office.
Another possibility was Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leading opposition activist, who started a campaign last year for democracy and Mubarak out.
Mubarak’s political end was swift, coming less than a day after he stunned protesters by insisting he would not step down despite widespread expectations that he was about to do so.
Vice President Omar Suleiman said a military council would run Egypt to “achieve the hopes of our great people.”
The council gave few details of what it said would be a “transitional phase” and gave no timetable for presidential or parliamentary elections.
“DIFFICULT DAYS AHEAD”
In the United States, Mubarak’s long-time sponsor, President Barack Obama stressed to the U.S.-aided army that “nothing less than genuine democracy” would satisfy Egyptians.
He acknowledged: “This is not the end of Egypt’s transition. It’s a beginning. I’m sure there will be difficult days ahead, and many questions remain unanswered.”
Washington has pursued a sometimes meandering line since the protests began on January 25, apparently reluctant to lose a bulwark against militant Islam in the Middle East but anxious to endorse calls for political freedom.
Behind the celebrations, there was a note of caution over how far the armed forces under Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak’s veteran defence minister, were ready to permit democracy, especially since the hitherto banned Muslim Brotherhood is one of the best organised movements.
Mubarak was the second Arab leader to be overthrown in a month. Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was forced to flee his North African country when the generals told him they were not prepared to defend him against protesters.