Field Marshal Tantawi stresses commitment to building civil state in Egypt, support for peace process

Egypt government says all peaceful protest activities are legitimate

Activists, politicians refuse decision to ban foreign monitoring on elections

Ex-interior minister trial postponed to Aug. 3

Foreign groups are meddling in Egypt and stirring up unrest, Egypt's army chief said on Wednesday, days after protesters marched to the defense ministry to urge their military rulers to speed up reforms.

"There are foreign players who feed and set up specific projects that some individuals carry out domestically, without understanding," Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council said in an address to officers.

"It is possible that there is lack of understanding, that foreign players are pushing the people into inappropriate directions," Tantawi said, adding that such foreign parties "did not want stability for Egypt."

Scores of people were injured during Saturday's march in Cairo when thousands of demonstrators fought opponents hurling stones and firebombs. Military police, armed with Tasers and batons, fired in the air to stop the demonstrators from approaching the defense ministry but did little to intervene in the clashes.

Tantawi, who has faced calls from activists to step down, said the armed forces did not intervene with the protesters in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's uprising, or in Abbasiya Square, the scene of Saturday's clashes.

"It was the people who intervened and confronted this," he said, stressing that "the armed forces have protected the revolution."

Tantawi said the army was committed to handing power to civilian rule and pledged free and fair elections. A parliament vote is set to take place in November and presidential poll next year.

The head of Egypt's ruling military council on Saturday praised the youth who led the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in an apparent effort to diffuse growing tensions between activists and the army.

Many protesters have grown distrustful of the military rulers who assumed control of the country after Mubarak was forced to step down more than five months ago.

Critics accuse the generals of dragging their feet in bringing former regime officials to trial and purging the government of Mubarak loyalists as well as trying civilians in military courts.

The standoff came to a head late Friday in Cairo when a large group of protesters marched toward the headquarters of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to denounce what the purported beatings of demonstrators by military forces during another rally in the city of Alexandria.

The army quickly issued a statement denying the use of violence against protesters and accusing activists of trying to divide the country.

"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces urges the public to exercise caution and not to be drawn into this suspicious plot that aims to undermine Egypt's stability," the statement said in unusually strong language.

The head of the council, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, tried to soften the tone in an address later Saturday on state TV.

He called the youth activists "a great product of Egyptian soil, who belong to an ancient people, adopted noble principles, confirmed their nationalistic sense and realized their responsibility as Egypt's youth to progress and make history."

He also appealed for national unity.

"Holding together our internal front and keeping it strong is a national necessity, so we can face the challenges and difficulties in the nation's path, to realize where we are going and how to move toward a safe and secure future," Tantawi said.

His remarks, which were made during a speech commemorating the anniversary of the 1952 military coup that toppled Egypt's monarchy, came hours ahead of another planned rally outside the council's headquarters to demand speedier trials for ex-regime officials, the end of military trials for civilians, the resignation of the state prosecutor and a set date for the transition to civilian rule.

Thousands marched from Tahrir Square toward the ministry of Defense, across town, chanting against the council's delay in implementing their demands.

The military council has promised to hand over power to an elected civilian government within six months. Parliamentary elections are now set for October or November, followed by presidential elections, likely next year.

Activists frustrated with the slow pace of change have continued to protest, forcing a change to the interim government and a change in the leadership of the police force.

A few hundred have been camped out in Tahrir Square since earlier this month to pressure the military to bring those accused of killing the protesters during the 18-day uprising to trial.

So far, only one low-ranking policeman has been charged in absentia for killing protesters. Nearly 900 were killed in the early days of the uprising.

In an unusually strongly-worded statement released on its Facebook page, the council statement accused activists of seeking to drive a wedge between the people and the military.

It singled out the April 6 movement, one of the largest groups behind the protests that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11.

Activists quickly rebuffed the statement with one of their own, saying the army rejects all criticism of how it is ruling the country.

Mohammed Adel, an April 6 spokesman, said "defaming" the group is reminiscent of the language used by the previous regime against its opponents. "It is the army that is driving a wedge between it and the people by accusing others of treason," he said.

Protesters in Alexandria insisted the military used force against them at Friday's demonstration.

Nour al-Zorba, a protester, said they were first attacked by men wielding knives. Protesters chased those attackers away, but then soldiers began chasing them, detaining some and beating others to the ground, he said.

A few protesters managed to enter the military headquarters and tried to speak to the site's commander.

One woman, Amira Nabil, who went inside the headquarters said she was beaten and dragged by her feet, and punched in the stomach.

Egypt's ruling military council said foreigners won't be allowed to monitor Egyptian elections, scheduled for November. That has some local activists worried about the credibility of the vote.

Egyptian rights activists are raising strong concerns after the country's military rulers banned international observers for the first elections of the post-Mubarak era.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military junta that took over after President Hosni Mubarak was pushed out, said Wednesday that elections will be delayed to November, two months later than originally expected.

International monitors will not be permitted on the grounds of national sovereignty, said Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin, the military council’s legislative adviser.

“This is a very terrible development,” says Bahey El Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “It was usual to hear this from the Mubarak regime because the elections were always fraudulent.”

But for the military to take the same position, citing the same excuse the Mubarak regime used, “raises serious questions about the credibility of the coming election,” he says.

A fair vote is vital to establishing both domestic and international trust in Egypt’s new government, and international monitors would be a natural way to ensure one, says Hassan.

Election fraud was rife throughout the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule. Parliamentary elections held in November and December of last year were widely seen as some of the most fraudulent in Egypt’s modern history.

A look at how Mubarak and allies stole his last election Mohamed Mahmoud, an Egyptian from the Nile Delta who is camped out in Cairo’s central Tahrir protesting the military rulers’ slow pace of reform, says he's suspicious about the ban on foreign observers.

“Why would they not allow the international observers unless they have something to hide?” he asks. “This should be our first free election in Egypt. But maybe they don’t want it to be free.”

Shahin said that Egyptian civil society organizations will be free to monitor the vote. The Mubarak regime said the same, but then went to great lengths to restrict those organizations’ efforts. Some activists wonder if they will experience a similar obstacle this fall, says Hassan.

“This raises questions of what they are looking to cover up,” he says. “Even Egyptians won't buy it because of their long experience with Mubarak.”

The parliament scheduled to be elected in the fall will be charged with forming a commission to write a new constitution, and presidential elections will come after that. The military has pledged to give up power after elections are held.

The announcement on international monitors came as the military laid out the new laws that will govern the election, which will take place in three stages.

Half of the 504 parliamentary candidates will be elected individually, while the other half will be elected under a list system, in which parties receive seats proportionate to the percentage of the vote they received.

A women’s quota instituted under Mubarak to ensure women's representation will be abolished, though every party list must include at least one woman. A nearly half-century old quota reserving half of the seats for farmers and workers was left in place.

A court postponed Monday the trial of Egypt's former interior minister over the killing of protesters until next week so that he will be tried alongside ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

The ruling followed a weekend of clashes involving protesters demanding swifter reforms and faster prosecution of Mubarak and his officials after February's revolution. Demonstrators clashed with stone-throwing men and scuffled with soldiers who blocked a march.

Many Egyptians believe the army is reluctant to speed up the trial of Mubarak, its former commander-in-chief, and say it wants to prevent his public humiliation. They also accuse the army of delaying other reforms.

Judge Adel Abdel-Salam ordered the trial of Habib al-Adli be postponed until August 3 so it was "joined with the case related to the trial of the former President Hosni Mubarak," adding that the evidence and charges were the same. Six others involved in the Adli case will stand trial on the same day.

Some protesters at the court on the outskirts of Cairo hurled stones at the police van taking Adli from the court.

"Why did they postpone the trial today? We are tired of this never-ending postponement. The son of my brother died in the revolution; who will give us our rights ... if the court keeps postponing trials of those who killed him?" asked Mohamed Abdou, who was outside the court.

Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, have been charged in connection with the killing of demonstrators. More than 840 died in the 18-day uprising that ousted the president on February 11.

Mubarak, 83, has been in hospital since April, when he was first questioned. Judicial and security sources told Reuters this month his trial might take place in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where he is in hospital, and not in Cairo.

His two sons are being held in a Cairo prison.

Adli, who stood in a cage in court during Monday's hearing, is reviled by protesters after the police force he commanded used live ammunition, teargas and water cannon to try to break up protests against Mubarak.

"According to me, I am against the postponement. Why take all this time?" said Fouad Kamal, who works in a supermarket chain. He had come to the court expecting a verdict.

About 300 people were injured in Cairo Saturday when thousands of demonstrators fought opponents with stones on a march to the Defense Ministry to urge the ruling military council to speed up reforms.

Activists blamed the violence on thugs who they said were encouraged by the authorities and remnants of Mubarak's ruling party. Protesters also scuffled with military police who were barring the way to the ministry.

The army has dismissed the charges and said it did not use force against demonstrators.

"What happened Saturday was a planned attack against peaceful protesters who aim to keep up pressure on the military council to bring about faster reforms," said Mohamed Fahmy, a member of the Youth Coalition of the Revolution.

"We will continue to muster people on the street next Friday. We will respond in peaceful protest to Saturday's events," Fahmy said.

Protesters have increasingly criticized the army and arranged coordinated demonstrations in Cairo and the port cities of Alexandria and Suez.

Separately, the military prosecution began questioning former prime minister Ahmed Nazif over a charge of facilitating the sale of army-owned land to a businessman, the state's news agency said.

Nazif was sentenced to a one-year suspended jail term this month for squandering public funds in a case involving alleged irregularities in the procurement of vehicle license plates.