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Another tent city is blossoming in Tahrir square in downtown Cairo this week as thousands of Egyptians ready themselves for a massive protest on Friday, which has been dubbed (variously translated) “Friday of the Last Ultimatum,” or simply, the “Final Call.” The demonstrators have been in the square for nearly a week, urging a faster pace for reforms, an end to military tribunals for civilians, and a speedy exit for the military government as was promised following the ouster of President Mubarak five months ago. Protesters have pitted themselves directly against Egypt’s ruling armed forces, and despite significant concessions in the last week, the intensity on both sides has led to speculation that another confrontation could be in the offing.
The demonstrators are not protesting for freedom this time around, but for accountability. They seek justice for the more than 800 Egyptians who were killed by police during the 18-day revolt last February that led to the deposition of former President Hosni Mubarak. They also want the trials of Mubarak and other high level government officials, who are charged with murder, corruption and human rights violations, to proceed at a faster pace.
The demonstrators are chafing at the length of time it has taken the military to bring about the promised reforms and hold elections so that the soldiers can step aside as promised. On Wednesday, the military granted the request of a broad based coalition of political parties — including the Muslim Brotherhood’s front operation, the Freedom and Justice Party — and will delay elections from September to perhaps December.
In another sop to the demonstrators, the military government announced the firing of 650 police officers who have been accused of participating in the murders. That hasn’t assuaged the anger of the demonstrators. Indeed, the army — once almost universally admired in Egypt for maintaining public order during the chaos of the revolution — has lost most of the good will it garnered for those efforts as the pace of change has slowed to a crawl. Trials for many Mubarak cronies have not been scheduled, although Mubarak himself is set to go on trial August 3 on murder and corruption charges.
In anticipation of the Friday protests, the military issued an ominous sounding statement on Tuesday that said, in part, “The armed forces . . . call upon the noble citizens to stand against all the protests that impede the return of normal life to the sons of our great people,” and that “necessary measures will be taken to confront threats that surround the homeland and affect the citizens and national security.”
This angered many of the activists in the square who took the statement to mean that the military would oppose their right to protest. “The demonstrations are also called to protest a statement made by the [ruling] Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [on Tuesday] in which it implicitly warned against continuing protests,” said the Union of the Revolution’s Youth. “They’re saying we’re thugs so they have an excuse to attack the square,” said one protester.
The firing of the police officers was an implicit concession to the protesters, who have been demanding wholesale changes to not only the police, but the judiciary and the entire internal security apparatus as well. It didn’t appear to satisfy many of them. One protestor said, “This police shake-up came too late and is not enough. This was one of our main demands three or four months ago.”
The Interior Minister, Mansour Al Essawy, claimed that under rules governing the police, he did not have the authority to fire the hundreds of other police who were implicated in the murders. Only high-ranking officers could be fired before their cases were tried, he said. The officers let go were comprised of 505 brigadier generals, 82 colonels and 37 other officers. Others implicated or charged in the crimes would be “transferred to places where they won’t deal with people,” Essawyo said.
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