- Associated Press - Saturday, February 12, 2011

CAIRO (AP) — On Egypt’s first day in nearly 30 years without Hosni Mubarak as president, its new military rulers pledged Saturday to eventually hand power to an elected civilian government and outlined its first cautious steps in a promised transition to democracy. It reassured the world that it will abide by its peace deal with Israel.

The protesters who drove Mubarak out with an unprecedented 18-day popular uprising were still riding high on jubilation at their success. But they also began to press their vision for how to bring reform to a country where autocracy has pervaded the system from top to bottom for decades.

They also had an immediate question to resolve: Whether to continue their demonstrations.

A coalition of the movement’s youth organizers called for their massive protest camp entrenched for nearly three weeks in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to end, as a gesture to the military. Still, they called for large-scale demonstrations every Friday to keep up pressure for change. Others in Tahrir, however, insisted the constant protests should continue. With thousands still celebrating in the square, shooting fireworks in the air, there was no sign of significant numbers leaving.

At the same time, the coalition put forward their first cohesive list of demands for the next stage, focused on ensuring they — not just the military or members of Mubarak’s regime — have a voice in shaping a new democratic system.

Among their demands: lifting of emergency law; creation of a presidential council, made up of a military representative and two “trusted personalities”; the dissolving of the ruling party-dominated parliament; and the forming of a broad-based unity government and a committee to either amend or rewrite completely the constitution.

Tahrir, or Liberation, Square was the scene of wild partying all night long by Egyptians after the announcement Friday night that Mubarak had resigned and handed power to the military. Thousands streamed in during the day Saturday to continue celebrations.

They also sent a symbolic signal of their continued ambitions to rebuild a new nation. They started cleaning up the square, which had been trashed by 18 days of turmoil that included battles with police and regime-backed gangs. A virtual tent town has been set up there, complete with tents, clinics and other facilities for the thousands who have camped there overnight.

“The day of beautifying Tahrir Square,” a giant banner in the black-red-and-white colors of the national flag read. Broom brigades fanned out, with young men and women — some in stylish clothes and earrings — sweeping up rubble from the days of fighting and garbage from the days of rallying. Piles of trash were packed into bags. Young veiled girls painted the metal railings of fences along the sidewalk.

Many had their faces painted in the national colors and wore placards saying “Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re building Egypt.”

Others tried to reassemble sidewalks and pavements that fellow protesters had torn up to chop into ammunition in the brutal street battles with pro-regime gangs. Burnt-out vehicles used a barricades were towed away. In that fighting, the two sides threw just about everything heavy they could find at each other for 48 hours — chunks of concrete, metal rails and rebar, bricks and stones, as well as firebombs.

“We are cleaning the square now because it is ours,” said Omar Mohammed, a 20-year-old student. “After living here for three weeks, it has become our home … We’re going to leave it better than before.”

Others took pictures or danced in celebration in the ongoing party. Some posed with soldiers, who took children on their laps for pictures. One man on the sidewalk had a stand with dozens of wallets that had been taken from pickpockets caught in the square, and people came by to try find their lost property. At one corner of the square, a memorial to the around 300 people killed in the turmoil was erected, with pictures of some of them on the sidewalk surrounded by velvet ropes.

Some of the tents came down, but not all. And many in the square debated whether the protests should end or not.

“About half of our demands have been met, but the rest will take time. They can’t change everything at once,” said Ahmed Nasr, 28, who felt it was OK to leave now. “The army is with the people and protecting us, they will do things one at a time. But some people here don’t have enough faith.”

But Muhammed Ali, a 22-year-old archaeology student, disagreed. “If we leave now, the army will close the square and we won’t get to come back,” he argued. “The government has come from the army for too long,” he said, speaking of Mubarak’s and other officials’ military backgrounds. “We don’t know what they’ll do, they might keep hanging on to power.”

The coalition that called for the Tahrir protest camp to be lifted and replaced by weekly rallies is highly influential in the square. But they do not claim to be its leaders and often say they can’t defy the will of the “revolution.” It is made up of several youth activist groups, including supporters of reform advocate and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as well as youth from the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the last days of the turmoil, as Mubarak clinged to power, protesters pleaded with the military to take power and push him out. Now that the army has done so, there continued to be widespread optimism among protesters that it supports their ambitions.

But the Armed Forces Supreme Council, now Egypt’s ruler, has not weighed in one way or another on the coalition’s specific demands or said whether it will give them a formal voice in the country’s new leadership. The council is made up of the elderly top generals of the military’s branches, the chief of staff and Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi, who was long a close Mubarak loyalist.

Its announcement Saturday, read by a spokesman on state TV, ruled nothing out but signaled the military was being cautious. It asked the current government, installed by Mubarak in his final weeks, to continue functioning to keep the economy and state going until the next step is taken.

The spokesman, Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, appeared in front of a row of Egyptian military and national flags and read the council statement, proclaiming respect for the rule of law — perhaps a sign that the military aims to avoid imposing martial law.

The military is “looking forward to a peaceful transition, for a free democratic system, to permit an elected civil authority to be in charge of the country, to build a democratic free nation,” he said.

The military underlined Egypt’s “commitment to all its international treaties,” reassurance that it continues to honor the 1979 peace treaty.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the military’s statement, saying the treaty “has greatly contributed to both countries and is the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East.”

Israel has been deeply concerned that Egypt’s turmoil could threaten the peace accord. Egypt’s military strongly supports the peace deal, not in small part because it guarantees U.S. aid for the armed forces, currently running at $1.3 billion a year.

Anti-Israeli feeling is strong in Egypt, and many of the hundreds of thousands of protesters expressed anger at Mubarak’s close cooperation with Israel on a range of issues. Still, few seriously call for the abrogation of the treaty, realizing the international impact.

The military’s emphasis statement was on keeping the state and economy functioning after the turmoil of the past three weeks, which were a heavy blow to Egypt’s economy. For days, many businesses and shops were closed, much of Cairo’s population of 18 million stayed home under heavy curfew, and foreign tourists — one of the top sources of revenues — fled the country. This week, even as businesses began to reopen on a wide scale, labor strikes erupted around the country, many at state industries or branches of the bureaucracy.

The military relaxed the curfew — now to run from midnight to 6 a.m. instead of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. — and the Stock Market announced plans to reopen on Wednesday after a closure of nearly three weeks.

The Supreme Council asked the public, particularly the millions in the government sector, to “work to push the economy forward,” el-Fangari said, an apparent call for everyone to return to work.

The military also called on the “current government and provincial governors to continue their activities until a new government is formed,” el-Fangari said. The statement did not address when a new government would be formed.

The prosecutor-general announced a travel ban on three top former figures from the previous government — prime minister Ahmed Nazif, interior minister Habib el-Adly and information minister Anas el-Fiqqi. It also asked European countries to freeze the assets of three other former ministers — Ahmed Maghrabi, Rashid Mohammed Rashid and Zuheir Garana — as well as leading ex-ruling party figure Ahmed Ezz, who are under investigation for corruption, the state news agency said.

State TV announced that the military ordered ex-regime officials to get permission before traveling, a gesture to suggest more prosecutions could be in the offing.

Prosecution of corruption that pervaded Mubarak’s regime is a major demand of the opposition and wider public. Many Egyptians deeply resented the power of millionaire-business politicians like Ezz and others, who came to dominate the ruling party.


AP correspondent Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report.

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