In Egypt, some grumbling at pace of military transition

An Egyptian boy waved a national flag as he celebrated near Tahrir Square on Saturday. Opposition groups are worried reforms after Mubarak's ouster might not come fast enough.
An Egyptian boy waved a national flag as he celebrated near Tahrir Square on Saturday. Opposition groups are worried reforms after Mubarak's ouster might not come fast enough. AP

CAIRO — Egypt's military chiefs Saturday sought to restore calm and stability to a country still exhilarated by the first fruits of its revolution. But the armed forces signaled there were limits to how much change they would tolerate, ignoring demonstrators' demands to dismantle the institutional legacies of former President Hosni Mubarak.

In its fourth public statement in three days, the Supreme Military Council repeated its promise to oversee a transition to a "democratic and free" Egypt run by civilians. For the time being, however, the generals said they would keep the old order in place, allowing Mubarak's government to stay on in a caretaker role.

They also said Egypt would honor its international treaties, including its peace accord with Israel.

The council statement said the military wanted to meet "the legitimate demands of the people" but was silent on whom, if anyone, it would consult as it maps out Egypt's future.

Several Egyptian intellectuals who had tried to mediate between Mubarak and the protesters during the 18-day uprising said they have been kept in the dark and are worried.

"Everything is in the hands of the military. They issue one statement after another, but they are very brief," said Nabil el-Arabi, a former diplomat and judge at the International Court of Justice. "There's nothing else. Nobody knows."

While the military chiefs were focused on preserving order, Egypt's revolutionaries had more radical goals in mind. Many demonstrators said they were grateful for the military's decision not to crack down against the protests but doubted the generals would be so permissive about sharing power.

"This is a revolution, not a half-revolution," said Ahmed Abed Ghafur, 36, a computer engineer from Mansoura, a city about 100 miles north of Cairo, who had camped out in Tahrir Square for four straight days. "We need a timetable for elections. We need an interim government. We need a committee for a new constitution. Once we get all that, then we can leave the square."

In their own statement, protest organizers listed several other demands Saturday, including the release of political prisoners, the repeal of Egypt's 30-year-old state-of-emergency decree and the dissolution of Mubarak's parliament.

But there was disagreement over how long they should maintain their vigil in Tahrir Square, along the east bank of the Nile in central Cairo. Some insisted they would stay, others said they had made their point and would go home, while still others favored a weekly resumption of the protests every Friday.

"We need to give people a break, but we also need to follow up," said Ahmed Nagib, 33, a higher-education administrator and spokesman for the loose coalition of protest leaders. "We also need to spend time to further develop the leadership of our revolution."

Uncertainty over the future, however, was overshadowed for the moment by Egyptians' immense pride at what their revolution had wrought and the fact that they had done it by embracing peaceful tactics.

Tens of thousands returned to Tahrir Square on Saturday to drink in their newfound freedom. People sang patriotic songs and marveled at the scene. Parents snapped photographs of their children perched on tanks next to soldiers. Cartoonists plastered the storefront of a condemned Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise with dozens of hand-sketched posters, virtually all mocking Mubarak, their once-feared former leader.

For many Egyptians, upholding the square's image as a sacred place became paramount. Paint crews daubed fresh black-and-white stripes on street curbs. Small armies of volunteers fanned out across Tahrir and transformed it into the cleanest site in the city.

The White House said in a statement that President Barack Obama "welcomed the historic change that has been made by the Egyptian people, and reaffirmed his admiration for their efforts."

While most of the country celebrated, a few made themselves scarce.

Mubarak was reportedly holed up in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, though there was no official confirmation. State television reported the military had banned a handful of former government officials from traveling abroad; several are under investigation by prosecutors on corruption allegations.

Popular opinion was mixed on whether authorities should prosecute Mubarak as well. The formal list of demands released by protest organizers Saturday took no position on his fate.

Some Egyptians said they had no desire to seek retribution against the former president. But many said that, at a minimum, he and his family should be investigated on the widely held suspicion that they pocketed immense wealth during his three decades in power.

"The money he stole has to be returned to the people," said Safwat Higazi, a Muslim cleric active in the demonstrations.

The prospect of that appeared unlikely, however, as long as Mubarak's former allies in the military and government remain in charge of the country.

Ibrahim al-Moallem, a well-known publishing executive from Cairo, said he was "very worried that there must be some remaining pockets from the old regime who will try to resist."