Tantawi speech ruffles Tahrir

Less than two hours after the speech by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, clashes have erupted again on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, a sign that activists and politician say indicates that the nation’s military rulers are following the former regime’s  failed strategy to remain in power.

Eyewitnesses and doctors at a makeshift field hospital said there were an invisible substance causing suffocation and inflammation of the eyes. Reports of protesters fainting were widespread.

Before Tantawi’s speech, Egypt's ruling military council held a five-hour crisis meeting with nearly 12 political party representatives and presidential hopefuls earlier on Tuesday. They agreed that a new government would be formed and that presidential elections would be held by July.

Previously, Egypt’s military rulers had indicated that the presidential elections would be held in late 2012 or early 2013.

But Farid Zahran, a leading member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, which attended the meeting, said Tantawi did not stay true to those discussions during his address.

“Tantawi’s speech is disappointing and doesn’t reflect the agreement we had made with the SCAF members who attended the meeting,” Zahran said.

Overall, Zahran said he thought the meeting was fruitful, adding that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces agreed to apologize for protester deaths and compensate the victims’ families.

“But Tantawi completely ignored all those agreements and gave a speech that has a threatening tone, not a reconciliatory one,” said Zahran.

Shortly after he finished his speech, thousands of protesters in Tahrir chanted slogans reminiscent of those used during the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak.

“Leave, leave,” they told Tantawi.

The growing similarities between these protests and unrest early this year are not limited to slogans. Political activist and analyst Samer Soliman compared Tantawi’s speech to the ones Mubarak made early in the revolution, saying it came too late and offered solutions that were no longer acceptable after the recent escalation.

“It’s obvious that time has passed him by, and he doesn’t realize what’s happening around him, just like Mubarak” Soliman said.

Islam Lotfy, member of the 25 January Revolution Youth Coalition and co-founder of the Egyptian Current party said protesters in the square immediately rejected Tantawi’s “disappointing” speech.

Activist Ahmed Maher, coordinator of 6 April Youth Movement, agreed with Zahran, saying, “the speech doesn’t respond to the demands raised by protesters in Tahrir and other governorates. The speech is thee same as the speeches of Mubarak in his final days.”

One of protesters’ main demands is for the SCAF to stop running the country’s affairs and allow a new civilian council to step in until presidential elections. Tantawi, however, said he would order the formation of a new cabient to replace the one that resigned Monday that will still work in conjunction with the SCAF.

"He did not delegate his authorities to the cabinet," said Sameh al-Barqy, a leader of the youth-led Egyptian Current Party.

"The speech did not make any difference,” he said.

Lotfy says that there is no point of forming a new government if it is not given real powers.

“It will be like bringing another [Prime Minister] Essam Sharaf,” said Lotfy, who insists that none of protesters demands have been met.

“Protesters want a national salvation government that is given legislative authorities to change the current situation where the military council holds all the power and the cabinet only holds administrative powers,” said Lotfy.

Maher suggested the speech was threatening in tone.

“The speech plays on emotion and at the same time it frightens people from the instability that might occur if people continue criticizing SCAF,” he said. “Furthermore, the speech was full of a tone of betrayal of those who condemn the SCAF’s mishandling of the transitional period.”

Some said Tantawi’s statement that the people could send the military back to the barracks with a national referendum was cause for concern.

"The armed forces, represented by their Supreme Council, do not aspire to govern and put the supreme interest of the country above all considerations." Tantawi said.

 “He is threatening to instigate another division among the people with this referendum,” said Barqy.

Zahran said that no one in the meeting with SCAF member had raised the “bizarre issue” of holding a referendum.

“Why would we suggest conducting a referendum while we have two elections [parliamentary and presidential] that would take three months at least? I think that Egypt doesn’t have the luxury to call people to go to the polls three times in nearly six months,” said Zahran.

Politician Ayman Nour, the former head of the liberal Ghad party, wrote on Twitter that “SCAF didn’t come to power by a referendum so that it will exit power by a referendum.”

According to Soliman, Tantawi’s suggestion of a referendum does not reflect the severity of the situation after the deaths of at least 28 people since Saturday.

“He now has a political responsibility for the killing of protesters, is there such a thing as holding a referendum to determine whether a murderer would be tried for his crime?” asks Soliman.

Soliman says the only peaceful way to end the protests and clashes is for the military council to step down and appoint an interim government with real powers.

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