Egyptians packed Tahrir Square in Cairo through the night yesterday, waving flags and chanting for the end of military rule as they waited to know the name of the first president they have been free to choose.
After a week of drama, in which the Muslim Brotherhood’s hopes of victory in the presidential election were soured by the army dissolving the Islamist-led parliament and decreeing tight limits on the new head of state’s powers, there was anxiety on the streets, but also some hope a compromise could be found.
With the electoral commission still not promising to give a result of last weekend’s presidential run-off before today, senior figures on the ruling military council and among their old enemies in the Brotherhood said they had already held talks about future constitutional arrangements this week.
In Tahrir Square, where demonstrators faced down then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s police state during last year’s Arab Spring and forced him from power, thousands of mainly Islamist protesters have gathered in growing numbers for several days. They were determined to see the army that pushed Mubarak aside make good on its promise to hand over to civilian government by next month.
“Say it without fear, the army must leave,” they chanted among hundreds of fluttering flags carrying Egypt’s red, white and black colors. “Down, down with military rule.”
The ruling military body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), made clear, however, it was not about to accede to their demands, which include reversing the dissolution of parliament and canceling a decree by which it took legislative power for itself until a new constitution is in place.
However, both sides recall the bloodshed that ravaged another North African state, Algeria, when military rulers thwarted an Islamist movement’s triumph at the ballot box in the 1990s, and appear willing to renew the tentative cooperation they built up after Mubarak’s overthrow and step back from an outright clash.
An Islamist insurrection in Egypt in the 1990s also cost hundreds of lives, making the Brotherhood wary of violence.
Delay in the final tally of votes between Islamist Mohammed Morsi and former General Ahmed Shafiq was due to many appeals being heard by the electoral commission, officials said. However, it also gave more time for talks to defuse tensions.
“There has definitely been the process involved in tallying the official vote before announcing results,” a senior state official familiar with the counting process said on Friday. “But there is also the politicking behind the scenes, with each side weighing up the strength of the other. The Brotherhood can draw millions of disciplined supporters onto the streets and the army has a mandate to ensure order.”
Discussions between generals and Islamists, whose violent confrontation has marked Egypt for decades, were assuming a likelihood that Morsi will win narrowly, something electoral and army officials said seemed probable, but not certain.
“We have met with them to discuss how to get out of this crisis after parliament was dissolved and the new president’s powers curbed,” said Khairat al-Shater, who runs the Brotherhood’s finances and strategic planning — although he added they were some way from reaching any kind of agreement.
“The generals feel they are the proprietors of power and have not yet reached a level of real compromise,” he said.