CAIRO — Egypt on Friday appeared on the cusp of a protracted battle for control of the countrys once-promising revolution, with military rulers and protesters staging rival demonstrations and showing preferences for different prime ministers.
The republic of Tahrir, as some pundits call the iconic square in downtown Cairo, held an informal election in which thousands of protesters voted for Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, 69, to steer the country from an abyss just three days before scheduled parliamentary polls.
About six miles away, a thousands-strong crowd of pro-military demonstrators rallied behind the powerful generals after the appointment of Kamal el Ganzouri — a 77-year-old former premier who served under the deposed President Hosni Mubarak — as the official interim prime minister.
The rifts between the pro- and anti-military camps, along with additional fractures within each of the movements, threaten to derail Egypts path to democracy and could lead to more internecine bloodshed, analysts and activists warned. A fresh provocation came with the councils selection of the elderly former-regime luminary Ganzouri to address the revolutionaries grievances.
His surprise pick only cemented the protesters view of the council as tone deaf and incapable of meaningful reform.
Today were much more lucid about whats wrong with this country: its military rule, said the acclaimed Egyptian director Yousry Nasrallah, whos currently shooting a feature film about the uprising. A taboo has been broken. Before, no one could criticize the military.
In an acknowledgment of the instability, the council announced Friday that each stage of the staggered parliamentary elections would now have two days of voting to allow for better security. But with downtown Cairo paralyzed by protests and clashes erupting anew in Alexandria, the second-largest city, it was anyones guess whether elections would take place at all, let alone polls that could be considered representative and legitimate.
To further complicate matters, Egypts best-organized political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, was in a bind. The influential Islamist group quietly dispatched its young members to join the Tahrir protesters but officially backed the military councils plan to hold elections as scheduled and to hand over power after presidential elections in mid-2012.
The Brotherhoods Freedom and Justice Party is poised for big returns if the polls go on, though the groups revolutionary credentials have taken a severe hit amid criticism that it sold out long-term reform goals by siding with the generals for its own immediate electoral interests.
If we vote, in a way youre supporting the council, but if you dont vote, you leave the Brotherhood to eat the whole cake, lamented Osama el Hatil, 38, a civil engineer among the Tahrir protesters. I havent yet decided if Im going to vote.
Ibrahim al Houdaiby, a Tahrir activist and ex-Brotherhood member whose family boasts two former senior leaders, said it was wise of the group to steer clear of the latest uprising lest Egypts secular elites not to mention Western powers see the revolt as Islamist in nature.
However, he said, the Brotherhood stumbled badly in its attempts to explain its stance in a way that didnt burn bridges.
They lack the political imagination to articulate a position that avoids conflict on the street, but shows a presence in the square, Houdaiby said. Theyre portraying themselves as worse than they are.
The Obama administration issued a statement that called for the military council to transfer power to civilian authority "as soon as possible." But the U.S. call timed, White House officials said, to be released at the beginning of the business day in Cairo was hardly noticed in Tahrir.
"The council's staying in power or leaving is our internal issue and business, and America has no right to interfere," said Islam Othman, 29, a tour guide. "We didn't demand for Obama to leave because of the Wall Street protests or the Palestinian situation."
Tahrir Square itself was relatively calm, if surging with political activism. With concrete barricades installed to seal protesters off from the headquarters of the hated Interior Ministry not far away, there was none of the pitched fighting that for the past week had sent clouds of tear gas over the square. The mood was lighter, even as protesters continued their chants of, "the people want the fall of the field marshal," referring to the chief of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Hundreds staged a sit-in outside the Cabinet building, vowing a fight if Tantawis pick for prime minister tried to enter the building.
Our battle now will be between the people in Tahrir Square and those outside of it, with the council on the side, said Waleed Rashed, 28, a founder of the liberal April 6 Youth Movement, as he marched to the square with dozens of young Egyptians who sported casts and eye patches from deadly clashes with security forces earlier this week.
A week of nearly incessant battles between riot police who tried to clear the square and protesters who refused to go left at least 38 of the demonstrators dead and some 2,700 wounded, according to the health ministry. The military council issued a rare apology for the deaths on Thursday, then riled emotions the next day with Ganzouris appointment.
These generals say that Tahrir Square doesnt represent all of Egypts 80 million, Rashed said. That 1 million enough was enough for them to remove Mubarak, but now its not enough for them to take us seriously?
Ganzouris appointment drew many first-time protesters to Tahrir on Friday, including a strong showing of middle- and upper-class families who said theyd initially opposed the latest uprising as disruptive, but were so outraged at returning to even figurehead rule by a onetime Mubarak crony that theyd changed their minds.
Wed rather bring back Ramses II, cracked Hatil, the engineer, taking aim not just at Ganzouris age, but at the entire ossified system that returned him to public office.
At the much smaller pro-military rally in the Cairo district of Abbasiya, news reports said, demonstrators tweaked the most famous revolutionary slogan to take aim at their foes in the square.
The people want the fall of Tahrir, they chanted.
Incensed at news coverage they consider too sympathetic to the protesters, thugs in the crowd roughed up several foreign and Egyptian journalists at the event, according to firsthand accounts posted on Twitter.
Adam Skaria, a 21-year-old student and avid supporter of the military council, said he wanted to attend the pro-military rally, but his filial duty won out and he instead accompanied his revolutionary mother to Tahrir Square. On their walk home, the two debated the merits of the uprising as they crossed a bridge over the Nile.
Mona Said, an art gallery owner who described Ganzorys selection as an insult to the people, rolled her eyes at her sons opposing views, but praised him for his willingness to at least check out the square for himself.
I was actually against this new uprising, too. It was time to go to work, to rebuild, she said. But Ganzori? Really? I came now because this is it. Were not going to see another January with no change.
Skaria, her son, worried aloud whether Egypt could hold together if a bunch of fragmented political parties replaced the militarys six-decade hold on the countrys government. Still, he conceded, the voices in Tahrir were important.
When you have that many people asking for the same thing, he said, you should listen.
(Contributing to this story were special correspondent Mohannad Sabry in Cairo and Steven Thomma in Washington.)
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