On the fifth day of protests in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi addressed the nation with the offer of concessions including a referendum on the immediate transfer of power to a civilian government, and the election of a president by July 2012.
His pre-recorded address also angrily defended the army’s record during the transitional period and said they had been “patient” in the face of “insults.”
His words had little effect on the hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Tahrir Square, who responded with enraged chants of “Leave, leave.” An effigy of Tantawi in military uniform dangled from a lamppost on the square.
Activists’ calls for a “million-man march” on Tahrir Square had been effective, with crowds growing throughout the day. As the death toll rose to 36 after fierce fighting in the side-streets, protestors carried the coffin of one man they said had been killed in clashes over the weekend.
In mid-afternoon an army officer was hoisted onto the crowd’s shoulders as thousands roared in delight. Electrified by the prospect of the army turning against its leaders, the entire square united in chants of “the people want the fall of the field marshal.” The officer, Ahmed Shuman, who also called for Mubarak and Tantawi (then defence minister) to step down in February, told al-Jazeera Live that “most of the army are against what is happening now.” Some believed his return to Tahrir was a sign that a second triumph was close at hand.
After the initial euphoria of Shuman’s appearance, however, it was unclear whether the crowds believed him. Trust in the military has been eroded—even destroyed—in the months since they took power from Mubarak in February. “We won’t listen to anything anyone from the army says while we see this happening,” said one protestor, gesturing towards the orange ambulances ferrying the dead and injured out of the fiercest fighting in Mohamed Mahmoud street.
Tantawi’s words were undercut by escalating violence from security forces positioned near Tahrir Square. In Midan Falaki, east of the square, protestors gathered in dense tear gas to push towards the military’s position in front of the interior ministry. Swept up in the adrenaline of the moment, young men raced scooters through the crowds towards the front line, shouting. Masked protestors on the street cheered them on.
But gathered nearby were equal numbers of street children selling tissues and bystanders reluctant to join the protestors in the square, let alone those on the frontlines. “I don’t agree with these demonstrations at all,” said 30-year-old software engineer Mohammed Rasmy. “The economy is in crisis, tourism is suffering—how do these people think we can live without stability?”
Despite the failings of Scaf, the military council, Rasmy and other pragmatists argue that they are the only ones who can hold the country together. “If the army goes, who else can we turn to? None of these candidates or parties have any experience of governing,” said Ayman Wahba, who owns a nearby printing business. “That would be a disaster for us businessmen.”
The idealism of protestors who are unwilling to compromise on a just basis for Egypt’s future is intoxicating. But it has yet to affect the majority of the country’s 81 million people.
Tantawi’s speech was certainly not enough to pacify protestors in Tahrir and other flashpoints including Alexandria, Suez and the delta city of Mansoura. Whether their priorities will outweigh those of the silent majority remains uncertain.