Egyptian protesters continue to fill Cairo’s central Tahrir Square over the ruling military council’s refusal to immediately transfer power to a civilian government. In a televised address on Tuesday, the head of Egypt’s military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said he has accepted the prime minister’s resignation and that the military is ready to relinquish power if Egyptians call for that in a referendum. But protests only intensified after Tantawi’s speech, and security forces unleashed a barrage of tear gas. Over the past five days, at least 38 people have been killed, thousands injured, and at least 15 journalists attacked as Egypt has witnessed the largest protests since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Kouddous has been on the ground reporting from in Egypt since the revolution began in January. “[Tantawi] essentially offered some minor concessions that were not demanded by any of the protesters in Tahrir,” says Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, reporting from Cairo. “Many compared this speech to Mubarak’s second speech on February 1st, where he made some kinds of concessions and used this kind of tone in the hope of ending the revolution. But the response then and the response now were very similar. Tahrir yesterday was packed with people, really a massive, massive protest. And after the speech ended, you heard this huge reverberation from the crowd, this huge echo of 'irhal,' which means 'leave.'” [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hundreds of thousands of protesters continue to fill Cairo’s central Tahrir Square despite an announcement by Egypt’s ruling military council to accelerate the timetable for transferring power to an elected government. Over the past five days, security forces have killed dozens of protesters and injured thousands, as Egypt has witnessed the largest protests since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. In a televised address on Tuesday, the head of Egypt’s military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, said he had accepted the prime minister’s resignation and that the military was ready to relinquish power if that’s what the Egyptian people call for in a referendum.
FIELD MARSHAL MOHAMED HUSSEIN TANTAWI: [translated] I have taken the following decisions. I have accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government and for it to continue working until a new government that will hold all powers is reformed. This will allow it to manage the transitional period in coordination with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The parliamentary elections will take place on time, and electing a president will be complete before the end of June 2012. The armed forces, represented by its Supreme Council, do not aspire to govern, and place the country’s interests above all. It is ready to immediately hand over responsibilities and return to its main responsibilities of protecting the nation, if the people wish, and could be carried out through a national referendum, if the situation would call for one.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s ruling military council. Protests intensified after Tantawi’s speech, and security forces unleashed a barrage of tear gas across parts of Tahrir Square, the effects of which could be felt at the far edges of the square and beyond. Meanwhile, the U.S. issued its strongest statement since the latest round of protests began. This is State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland.
VICTORIA NULAND: The United States remains very concerned about the violence in Egypt. We condemn the excessive force used by the police, and we strongly urge the Egyptian government to exercise maximum restraint to discipline its forces and to protect the universal rights of all Egyptians to peacefully express themselves. While all parties in Egypt need to remain committed to nonviolence, we believe that the Egyptian government has a particular responsibility to restrain security forces and to allow the Egyptian people to peacefully express themselves.
AMY GOODMAN: Reports from the El Nadim Center, an Egyptian rights group, said late last night that at least 38 people have been killed, and more than 2,000 wounded nationwide, since Saturday in the military government’s crackdown. Some of the dead were reportedly killed by live ammunition fired by Egyptian forces. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called for an independent probe into the killing of demonstrators.
We go now to Democracy Now!'s Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He's been in Egypt since the revolution erupted in January and has been closely following the latest crisis on the ground this weekend. He’s been in Tahrir Square for the last days.
Sharif, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about the reaction to Field Marshal Tantawi’s address.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, Tantawi went on national television yesterday and spoke, as you mentioned in the lede, and he essentially offered some minor concessions that were not demanded by any of the protesters in Tahrir. As you mentioned, he offered to move forward presidential elections to June of 2012, said they would only relinquish power in a referendum, even though they didn’t come to power in a referendum, and other statements. He also—the tone was somewhat threatening at times, defensive and threatening. He said that any criticism of SCAF would be seen as an attempt to topple the state. And he also said that the Supreme Council has acted with self-restraint, despite mounting criticism over these last 10 months, despite reports, of course, of torture and the jailing of 12,000 civilians through military trials.
The response—and many compared this speech to Mubarak’s second speech on February 1st, where he made some kinds of concessions and used this kind of tone in the hope of ending the revolution. But the response then and the response now were very similar. Tahrir yesterday was packed with people, really a massive, massive protest. And after the speech ended, you heard this huge reverberation from the crowd, this huge echo of ”irhal” which means “leave,” the same language that was used in the 18-day uprising. And also, the people demand the toppling of the marshal, referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. So, I think the speech was, again, too little, too late, and didn’t go anywhere to placating the protesters’ demands.
And as you mentioned, just moments after the speech ended, while there’s been clashes going on on the outskirts of Tahrir for now five days—we’ve passed a hundred hours of continuous clashes. But most the time, within the square itself, it’s pretty secure. It’s actually a strange dichotomy to be in the square. People are selling food, and there’s almost sometimes a festive atmosphere. But at the same time, you see wounded people being carried by, and just 30 yards or maybe 50 yards away, there’s tear gas and guns and violence and blood and rocks. But what happened after the speech was an attack of tear gas that hit the square itself, very, very strong. It cleared half the square. I was on, actually, a ninth floor balcony of a friend’s apartment that overlooks Tahrir, and it cleared the balcony of people. That’s how strong it was. And so, you know, he makes the speech, and then the police attack. So, I don’t think it went far enough at all.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And Sharif, in addition to the attacks on protesters, there were also reports of attacks on journalists. Can you say a little about that?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: That’s right. In the past few days, as these protests have happened, at least 15 journalists have been attacked. The journalists’ syndicate staged a march yesterday in protest of that, 10 of them in Cairo, five of them in Alexandria, that were attacked. One in Alexandria was arrested, taken to a police station, stripped naked, and beaten for five hours. The head of the journalists’ syndicate has threatened to halt publication of all newspapers in protest of this.
And there’s also—the attacks, in general, have just not stopped. It’s really—it’s really surreal that this has been going on for so long, these five days now. Or we’re in the fifth day of these attacks. I just walked over, and it’s just absolute bedlam at certain parts of the square. The tear gas is extremely strong. And yesterday, it seemed they were almost using a new type of gas, that—I mean, most of the time, you can see this white plume of smoke, but this time you didn’t see anything, and all of a sudden your face would burn, your eyes water, and your throat would—you wouldn’t be able to breathe. So, this has been going on for quite some time now. And the Supreme Council just actually issued a statement, a statement number 83, denying the use—well, saying that the armed forces didn’t use any tear gas. Of course, technically, that’s true. The police are the ones that are using the tear gas. But it’s them trying to distance themselves from the violence that’s been happening under their authority for the last five days.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, Amnesty International is also saying they’ve received reports from medical sources saying some of those who have died have died as a result of asphyxiation after inhaling tear gas. Also, Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat, also in Cairo, sent this horrific photograph of people dragged to the corner who look like they are dead, certainly unconscious, heaped with—just dragged to the side where there’s garbage. The number of people who have died, Sharif, and what you think this means for Monday, the parliamentary elections, and the demand for the future now? Tantawi saying they will hand over to a civilian government next July—where does all this lead?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the number of dead, the Nadim Center, as you mentioned, puts it at 38. And as we spoke about yesterday, I went to the state morgue, and the technician there said that 23 of the bodies that he had received had died because of live ammunition. So these attacks continue, and that picture that you referred to is actually part of that video, where I mentioned, where the attack on Sunday, where they tried—where they cleared the square temporarily before retreating. People who had fallen as a result of either being shot or stampeded, or just falling over and lay unconscious, were dragged by military police and left in a pile, in garbage. Very clearly, this was done. So this is the type of violence being used against protesters.
With regards to the elections, Tantawi yesterday pledged that they would indeed take place on November 28th, which is just five days away. I think it’s very difficult to see how they can have real legitimacy while this is happening in Tahrir. A number of candidates, parliamentary candidates, have suspended their election campaigns in solidarity with the protests. Significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood has not. Significantly, the Muslim Brotherhood did not take part in yesterday’s protest, which I believe was the biggest protest so far of this revolution without their participation. It was one of the biggest protests so far of the revolution, period. And so, I’m not sure exactly what will happen with the elections. They may go ahead as planned, but it remains to be seen how they can have real legitimacy while this massive uprising is taking place and has no signs of abating yet.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sharif, we want to thank you very much for being with us. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, reporting from Cairo. And, of course, some of those tear gas canisters that we’ve seen people holding up say “CS” on them, CS being Combined Systems, which is made in Jamestown, Pennsylvania.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a highly unusual story. Stay with us.