Protests have brought Egypt’s administrative and commercial nerve centres to a standstill , as government attempts to stem a growing wave of opposition to military rule succeeded only in galvanising demonstrators further.
The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, took to the airwaves late on Saturday pledging to “meet the people’s demands”, following mass rallies across the country in which Egyptians accused the ruling council of army generals of betraying the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak this year.
In a short and strained address to the nation, Sharaf said all police officers accused of killing protesters would be stopped from working, and promised that the trials of former Mubarak ministers and other regime officials would proceed “as soon as possible”. He insisted that social and economic problems would be reviewed by the army-appointed transitional cabinet.
But activists dismissed the announcement as empty rhetoric and claimed it contained nothing substantive. “His speech sounded like one of these tricks of the old government,” Sherif, an engineer in his late 20s, told local news website Ahram Online. “If this government is unable to take serious steps, it should resign.”
Several thousand people flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square after Sharaf’s speech. Anti-government activists have taken control of the roads there and an open-ended sit-in began on Friday. By Sunday morning, access to the Mugamma – a giant concrete building on one side of the square that serves as the bureaucratic heart of the Egyptian state – had been blocked off, with some employees reportedly joining the protests.
In Suez, another focal point for political unrest, the families of some of those killed in the anti-Mubarak uprising helped protesters cut off the main highway between Cairo and Sokhna port, the main transit point for goods entering and leaving the Suez canal. The canal has also been targeted by strikes and protests in recent days, although officials insisted that international maritime traffic remained unaffected.
Sharaf – a popular choice among revolutionaries when he was first appointed interim prime minister in March – has repeatedly claimed that he draws his legitimacy from Tahrir, and said again on Saturday that “the people” were the only sovereign power in Egypt. But analysts believe that the army generals have given him little control over policy and personnel decisions, and in recent weeks the 59-year-old has cut an increasingly frustrated figure in public.
Egyptian newspapers used their Sunday editions to highlight the widening gap between the supreme council of the armed forces, which assumed power in the aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow and has promised democratic elections before the end of the year, and large sections of the general public who believe that the pace of reform is too slow. “Protesters: Sharaf’s decisions are not enough — Calls for hunger strikes and civil disobedience,” stated the front-page headline in state-owned al-Ahram, the country’s biggest-selling daily. Al-Tahrir, a new Egyptian paper that emerged out of the revolution, splashed with a smiling photo of the country’s de facto leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, under the words “The Marshall doesn’t respond.”
Activists have called for another round of mass demonstrations on Tuesday.