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Egypt's military has been a key force behind its leaders since a 1952 coup by military officers that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Army colonel, to power. Mubarak was commander of the Air Force before he became president.
Since the military took over from Mubarak in February, it has continued many of the former president’s repressive policies and has repeatedly delayed a timeline for transfer of power to civilian rule. Parliamentary elections are due to be held over two months beginning Nov. 28, but the military has said it will not give up power until a new president is elected.
The Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt's most organized opposition group, which belatedly joined the January uprising – has demanded the military withdraw security forces from the square and set a timeline for the transfer of power, with presidential elections no later than mid-2012. But it has also called for calm, not for protests, and for elections to proceed next week as planned.
The turnout in Tahrir Square today was particularly significant considering that the Brotherhood had urged its followers not to join the protest. In recent months, protests organized by the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were the only gatherings able to draw significant numbers, and Egypt’s military had enjoyed high support.
The Brotherhood’s political party is poised to make a strong showing at the polls. But many of the Islamist movement's younger members have joined the protesters in the square, and the leadership’s refusal to join the growing momentum may lead to hard questions from members.
“They are not as radical as the moment requires,” says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an analyst and former Brotherhood member. "The people on the street have come together. The political leadership has two choices: they can either come together and join the masses, or they can stand divided as they are and lose any credibility they have,” he says, referring not only to the Brotherhood but all of Egypt’s political leaders.
Protests were also reported in Alexandria and other cities across Egypt. Few analysts see how the situation can end without major concessions by the military.
The protest has grown too large for security forces to violently expel it from Tahrir without major casualties, yet police continued to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and they fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Doctors at volunteer field hospitals say security forces have also shot live ammunition at protesters.
The violent attacks on civilians have poured fuel on the fire, turning what might have been a small protest into a massive challenge to the military's rule.
"Each day the military council stays in power, the people get more stubborn," says protester Christiane Gabriel, a student. "It's not their job to run the country. They didn't protect our revolution."
Abdullah Mohamed, another protester, is even more pointed in his criticism. "Where are the rights of our brothers who died in the square? They treat us like animals and then say this? I will not go home until he hands power to a civilian council."