Protesters Reject Offer From Egypt's Military Leader

The head of Egypt's ruling military council announced measures aimed at appeasing protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square. But the general's speech appears to have backfired, with tens of thousands of protesters demanding he leave office immediately. NPR's Soraya Nelson talks to Robert Siegel.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. And we begin this hour in Egypt. Tensions escalated today as tens of thousands of protesters rejected an offer by Egypt's top military ruler to hold presidential elections by next June. Nor were they appeased by his plan to name a new civilian government in the interim. General Hussein Tantawi also offered to hold a referendum on military rule, but protestors rejected that, too, saying the military council must hand over power immediately to an independent civilian body.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson joins us now from Cairo. And Soraya, let's start with the speech today from General Tantawi. What did he have to say?

SORAYA SARHADDI-NELSON, BYLINE: Well, he was quite indignant in his delivery. He talked about how the military was loyal to Egyptians and loyal to Egypt, that they have done exactly what they said they would do, which is shepherd this country into a transition to democracy and that he was concerned about the people who were speaking out against the military. He did not specify the protestors in Tahrir, but the implication was clear. He also said that there would be a transition to civilian rule. He didn't indicate when that would be.

And as you mentioned, he offered the idea of a referendum. If people didn't like military rule, let's put it to a vote.

SIEGEL: But when he describes a transition to democracy, is it clear that he's talking about the military ultimately being subservient to the parliament and the president once they're elected?

SARHADDI-NELSON: That's not clear at all and certainly that is not something that the military is seeking, as evident with the constitutional principles that were so objectionable that started this whole wave of protests to begin with. I mean, they are seeking autonomy from civilian oversight and they want to be able to step in if they feel things are not going the way that is good for the country, at least from their viewpoint.

SIEGEL: So what was the response to this speech from General Tantawi in Tahrir Square, in the center of all the protests?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, there was great disappointment. A great cry went out. People were screaming, leave, leave. They were not very happy. We spoke to one activist, a political activist named Mohammed Waked(ph) and his concern was that this speech and these concessions would create a rift between powerful political forces that have stood together against military rule up until this point.

MOHAMMED WAKED: It's going to make another crowd as big, if not bigger, be opposed to the people of Tahrir. It might actually, if it stays like that, result in serious clashes within both sides.

SIEGEL: And by both sides, Soraya, he means those who would accept General Tantawi's conditions and those who would oppose them.

SARHADDI-NELSON: Yes. Basically, the people who want the elections to proceed because they see that as a necessary step to creating a democracy here and those who want to see a more immediate departure of Tantawi and the military rulers and have authority handed over to a neutral civilian body - for example, the constitutional court.

SIEGEL: And parliamentary elections, free elections, are scheduled for Monday. They'd be the first free elections in ages. Will they go on as scheduled?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, it seems so difficult. I mean, there's a determination and a will, but the logistics are missing. And certainly if this protest continues, there's going to be a large segment of the population that's not going to feel comfortable voting. I mean, this is an election that's going to be held in phases, but one of the phases would involve this area that incorporates Tahrir Square. And certainly, I can see that many people are staying away from the streets.

They're not necessarily going to work because they're afraid of the violence.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson in Cairo. Thank you, Soraya.

SARHADDI-NELSON: You're welcome, Robert.

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