Egyptian Democracy Advocate Critical of Military Rulers

CAIRO -- Egypt's new military rulers came under criticism Wednesday from a leading democracy advocate as well as from youth and women's groups for what they say is a failure to make decisions openly and include a larger segment of society.

Five days after ousting Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising, Egyptians continued protests and strikes over a host of grievances from paltry wages to toxic waste dumping. They defied the second warning in three days from the ruling Armed Forces Supreme Council to halt all labor unrest at a time when the economy is staggering.

The caretaker government also gave its first estimate of the death toll in the 18-day democracy uprising. Health Minister Ahmed Sameh Farid said at least 365 civilians died according to a preliminary count that does not include police or prisoners.

Mubarak's departure set off a chain reaction of revolt around the Middle East, with anti-government demonstrations reported Wednesday in Libya, Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen.

Democracy advocate and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei called on the council to include civilians in a transitional presidential council to be entrusted with setting the course toward democracy.

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The former head of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog agency said in a statement that there is an absence of transparency in the way the military rulers are running the country's affairs or making decisions that would impact the transitional period and the future of democracy in Egypt.

"The short transitional period ... threatens to throw the country back in the arms of the forces of the old regime," he said. "To prolong the transitional period without popular participation threatens to throw it back in the arms of dictatorship."

ElBaradei's warning comes after the military rulers announced a new committee of legal experts that would work to amend articles in the constitution to allow free elections later this year. Critics voiced concern about the choice of experts on the panel, saying the criteria for their selection was unclear.

More than 60 women's and community groups condemned the panel, saying it is an all-male group that "excludes half of society."

"This casts doubt on the future of democratic transformation in Egypt after the revolution, and raises questions about ... whether the revolution was seeking to free the whole society or only certain segments," the statement said.

The military council has dissolved parliament, which was stacked with Mubarak loyalists, and suspended the constitution. It also met once with youth activists, promising a peaceful transition of power to a civilian ruler; but declining to discuss specific actions on how to purge the political system of senior Mubarak loyalists.

The council has yet to meet with members of political parties and has declined a call by the youth activists to meet with ElBaradei. It has met with editors of local newspapers.

ElBaradei said the decisions made during the six-month transition period will impact the future of democracy in Egypt and requires civilian participation.

"While everybody appreciates the role of the military in saving the country from the disastrous conditions it had reached and the danger of chaos, the Armed Forces Supreme Council will issue a series of decisions that will have an important impact on the future of governance in the countries, which requires the participation of civil forces with the military immediately in managing the transitional period," he said.

Since his return to Egypt last year, ElBaradei has reinvigorated a youth movement that reached out to him as a leader in their calls for reform because they saw him as independent, untainted by state corruption and a figure who represents international success.

As youth groups and politicians edged for a role in shaping Egypt's political future, the military council again called for an end to strikes and protests that continued for a fourth straight day, virtually shutting down the country.

"We urge citizens and members of professional and labor unions to go back to their positions, and each play their part," the military said in a text message sent to Egyptian cell phones.

The new warning raised expectations of an outright ban on protests and strikes, but it was ignored by people angered over a long list of woes. Youth groups who have met with the military rulers said the strikes represent legitimate grievances and they would end if the current caretaker government chosen by Mubarak before he was ousted is replaced.

There are plans by various groups to hold a large protest Friday in Tahrir Square, where the democracy movement began gathering at the start of the uprising.

The military council that took power from Mubarak on Feb. 11 says strikes and protests are hampering efforts to salvage the economy and return the nation to normal life. The uprising has led to extended bank and stock market closures and the evaporation of tourism -- a key source of income.

By Thursday -- the last day of the business week in Egypt -- banks will have been closed two out of the past three weeks. There was no word on whether they would reopen Sunday, the start of the business week.

The stock market has been closed for the past three weeks and it's also uncertain when it will resume operating. The market lost nearly 17 percent of its value in two tumultuous sessions in late January before it was ordered shut to halt the slide.

As the economy falters, a wide array of groups are making it known they want change now.

Hundreds of airport employees protested inside the arrivals terminal at Cairo International Airport to press demands for better wages and health coverage. The protest did not disrupt flights.

In the industrial Nile Delta city of Mahallah al-Koubra, workers from Egypt's largest textile factory went on strike over pay and calls for an investigation into alleged corruption at the plant, according to labor rights activist Mustafa Bassiouni.

In Port Said, a coastal city at the northern tip of the Suez Canal, about 1,000 people demonstrated to demand that a chemical factory be closed because it was dumping waste in a lake near the city.

In the wake of protests Monday and Wednesday outside the office of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes said it has started giving each refugee a small, one-time payment to help with their immediate needs.

The refugees demonstrating at the UNHCR office on the outskirts of Cairo complained they have been stuck in Egypt for years. Wilkes said there are some 40,000 registered refugees in the country, many from East Africa.

The European Union said Wednesday its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton would visit Egypt next week after the Egyptian Foreign Ministry asked the international community for aid. Ashton would be the most senior foreign official to come to Cairo since Mubarak's ouster. Details of her visit were yet to be announced.

Also Wednesday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed Iran is about to send two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in years, calling it a "provocation." The Egyptian authority that runs the canal denied it.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement that "Israel is closely following the movements of the Iranian ships and has updated friendly states on the issue. Israel will continue to follow the ships' movements."

Security officials said they have known of Iranian ship movements for some time and expect them to arrive at the canal Thursday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley confirmed the presence of the ships in the area of the canal but would not say if that was considered provocative. "There are two ships in the Red Sea," he said, "What their intention is, what their destination is, I can't say."

There was one crumb of good news for Egyptian authorities: The country's chief archaeologist announced the recovery of three of 18 pieces reported missing from the famed Egyptian Museum during the uprising.

"God almighty saved the antiquities from this hell because God loves Egypt," Antiquities Minister Zahi Hawass said.


Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this story.