Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt's generals try to quell strikes; talks with protest organizers begin

By Craig Whitlock and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 14, 2011; 5:09 PM

CAIRO - Egypt's new military rulers tried to contain growing labor unrest Monday and to reach out to youthful revolutionaries as the formidable task of governing the politically unstable and impoverished country became apparent.

Police officers, ambulance drivers, bankers, journalists and archaeologists marched through the streets of Cairo in separate protests Monday. Emboldened by a sudden burst of freedom that has flowered since President Hosni Mubarak's departure on Friday, the demonstrators demanded higher wages and other benefits.

"This is our ideal chance to make our voices heard," said Ahmed Mahmoud, a manager at a state-owned bank. "You would never see these kind of protests before, not when we had a dictator."

The Supreme Military Council, which took power after Mubarak's resignation, responded with a communique in which it urged Egyptians to go back to work, saying the stoppages were harming the country's security and economy. The council imposed martial law on Sunday, and officials hinted that they would ban strikes if things did not improve.

"Honorable Egyptians regard these demonstrations, which are taking place at a critical moment, as leading to negative consequences," read the communique, the fifth handed down by the military council since last week.

Meanwhile, leaders of the pro-democracy demonstrations that ended Mubarak's nearly three-decade rule said Monday that they had begun direct talks with the military chiefs for the first time.

The negotiations, described as exploratory, were held Sunday at military intelligence headquarters in Cairo, said Khaled al-Sayed, a protest organizer who attended. Another round is scheduled for Wednesday.

Representing the Supreme Military Council at the meeting were Maj. Gen. Mohammed Hegazy, an army commander, and Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abdel Fattah, head of military intelligence, according to the protesters.

The generals said an early priority for the military council is to quickly overhaul Egypt's constitution, which was designed to stifle political opposition to Mubarak.

The council suspended the constitution Sunday but told the revolutionaries that it would soon appoint a committee of legal experts to draft amendments within 10 days. The proposal would be subjected to a referendum within two months, according to an account of the meeting posted by Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive and protest leader.

In an interview, Sayed said the generals expressed sympathy toward the demonstrators' cause and their desire to return to civilian rule as soon as possible. But he said they gave few other specifics. They also refused, for now, demands to release political prisoners and overturn Egypt's state-of-emergency law, a legal measure Mubarak relied on for three decades to arrest dissidents.

"They told us that they agree with us, but they were reserved when we raised our specific issues," Sayed said. He said he also was skeptical of the generals' assertion that they would hand over power to a civilian government in less than six months. "That's also just talk," he said.

Ghonim, who was one of eight protest organizers at the meeting, said in a Facebook posting that he was more optimistic.

"I felt like we were all one and that we all want what's best for Egypt," wrote Ghonim, who had been detained by Mubarak's security forces for 12 days and released last week. "As an individual I feel that Egypt is in honest hands and that we are truly on the right path to achieve democracy."

For now, Egypt's head of state is Fie ld Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, leader of the Supreme Military Council and the defense minister under Mubarak. He has made no public statements since taking over from Mubarak on Friday.

Since then, the military council has been communicating to the public solely via the communiques. They have been read on state television by Maj. Gen. Mohsen el-Fangari, a stone-faced member of the council and a deputy to Tantawi.

The Obama administration has been in regular contact with Tantawi since the protests erupted Jan. 25 and has praised him for ordering the armed forces to take a neutral role and not crack down on the demonstrators.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates spoke by telephone with Tantawi the day after Mubarak's resignation. It was the sixth conversation between the two men since the protests began, said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary.

The military council has said that it will remain in control of Egypt for six months, or until new elections can be held. It has not specified when the elections might occur, leaving the door open to indefinite military rule.

Analysts and diplomats in Cairo, however, said it appears that Tantawi is eager to make changes quickly rather than have the armed forces assume long-term responsibility for running Egypt - and addressing its many social and economic problems.

"My own sense of the field marshal is that he's not really comfortable being the governor of Egypt," said a Western diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid antagonizing the military chiefs. Meanwhile, rumors continued to swirl about the fate of Mubarak, who departed Cairo on Friday on a plane with his wife but has not been seen since.

The Associated Press reported British Foreign Secretary William Hague as saying Monday that the European Union will discuss a request from Egypt's military rulers to freeze assets held by members of Mubarak's regime. Hague did not specify whether they included Mubarak, AP said.

Sameh Shoukry, Egypt's ambassador to the United States, said Monday that he had heard through personal, unofficial channels that Mubarak was "possibly in somewhat of bad health." Shoukry, who was interviewed on NBC's "Today" show, said he did not have specifics.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq has said that Mubarak is in Sharm el-Sheikh, a Red Sea resort where he maintains a villa. A senior U.S. administration official said the White House also thinks that Mubarak is staying in Sharm el-Sheikh.

His vice president, Omar Suleiman, also has disappeared from view since going on state television Friday to announce Mubarak's abdication.

Some Egyptian military officials have told diplomats that Suleiman has formally retired, while others said his position was abolished when Mubarak handed over power to the armed forces.

On Sunday, Shafiq said it was possible that the military council would ask Suleiman, Egypt's longtime spy chief, to assume another position.

Hosam Sowilan, a retired major general who knows Suleiman, said his future remained up in the air."Right now, he's no longer in authority," Sowilan said. "But he's very honest, and he could play a very active role if the Supreme Military Council asks him to do that."

whitlockc@washpost.com Sockol is a special correspondent.

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