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Momentum ebbs at Cairo square as protesters vow to remain

CAIRO - Hürriyet Daily News | 2/8/2011 12:00:00 AM | ALIAA HAMED

Anger at the embattled Egyptian president still runs high among anti-government protesters despite the first signs of ebbing momentum in their fight.

Anger and frustration against the embattled Egyptian president still run high among anti-government protesters despite the first signs of ebbing momentum in their fight of more than two weeks at the capital’s main Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

“How can I trust [Hosni] Mubarak to be my president after he sent thugs to kill us just a day after his speech that played on the Egyptians’ emotions?” asked Shaher al-Ashry, a sheikh from the well-known Al-Azhar University. Al-Ashry, who joined the anti-government protests a few days after the first demonstrations, was referring to pro-government forces on horseback and camelback that attacked protesters with guns and Molotov cocktails.  

“The decisions made by Mubarak did not satisfy me. He must be put on trial,” al-Ashry told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review. “The Egyptian people have lived 30 years under emergency law, drinking water mixed with sewage and eating vegetables irrigated with the same water.”

Many protesters, if not all of them, refuse to use the word “president” before Mubarak’s name, as a way to show they have lost their respect for both the man and the position. Amid confusion and fears of more instability, Egyptians are discussing the transition period for their country, with some arguing Mubarak should stay until the end of his term – another six months – while others insist he must leave immediately.

Young Egyptians who initiated the anti-government protests and have continued the sit-in at Cairo’s Tahrir Square want to see Mubarak toppled, and even put on trial for his crimes. Some legislative experts, however, believe Mubarak has to stay in power in order to change the constitution, which they say is needed to pave the way for a democratic and peaceful transition of power.

“What if he [Mubarak] dies now? Is the country going to collapse?” asked Mohamed Hussein, a protester from the city of al-Monofia – Mubarak’s hometown. “If we live in a country of institutions, then his departure will not cause any problems. If he stays another six months, nothing will change,” Hussein told the Daily News.

[HH] Debates over Mubarak’s future

Egyptian legislative experts say that under the constitution, the president is the only one who can order constitutional changes; if he leaves power, the vice president cannot take this step as the people would elect another president within 90 days. There is no chance of change with the current parliament, which has been accused of being illegitimately elected in fraud-ridden elections.

“The only solution now is that those gathered in al-Tahrir [Square] create a committee of 10 wise men and legislators to put together a new constitution and present it to the people in a public referendum that establish the new republic of Egypt,” said Adel Farghali, the former head of the country’s Administrative Courts.

According to Farghali, this new constitution should meet the citizens’ needs and correct the current charter’s failings. If Mubarak decides to leave power, the government and the parliament will fall, as they are illegitimate and invalid, he added.

“In this case, the president of the Constitutional Court will head the country and supervise fair and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections,” said Farghali, who said the condition should be made that the president of the Constitutional Court will not run for the presidency.

Amid debate about the future of the government, news about the personal fortunes of prominent figures from the ruling National Democratic Party has also raised the ire of protesters. According to official reports, the wealth of central NDP figure Ahmed Ezz is estimated to be $10.2 billion – more than the total amount of food and energy subsidies in all of Egypt. Ezz is currently banned from traveling abroad and faces charges including graft, election fraud and cornering the steel market in Egypt.

A recent report by The Guardian estimated Mubarak’s family fortune as much as $70 billion, with much of his wealth in British and Swiss banks or tied up in real estate in London, New York and Los Angeles, as well as along expensive tracts of the Red Sea coast.

The huge sum has angered Egyptians who have endured large-scale poverty for many year while the regime claimed the country did not have enough resources to improve their living conditions.

“This sum is enough to pay our external debt, which amounts to $30 billion, in addition to solving health and education problems,” business reporter Omaima Kamal told the Daily News.

While young protesters have been braving low temperatures and going without basic necessities during their sit-in protest in Tahrir Square, state media have accused them of being influenced by “outside” forces, saying these “external agitators” give the protesters daily luxury meals and pay them each $100 per day.

Some of the protesters have responded to such rumors with humor. “I came to get the [Kentucky Fried Chicken] or the $100 but I can’t find it,” said protester Khaled Badawy, who laughed while putting on a yellow wig. The sign he carried read, “I'm a spy, holding an agenda and asking for a KFC meal.”

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