MOHAMED ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear agency chief and Nobel Peace prize winner, was chosen as Egypt’s interim prime minister yesterday as the transitional administration fought to restore calm after at least 36 people were killed in Islamist protests that swept the country.
ElBaradei, 71, had been favourite to head the temporary leadership installed by the military after it ousted elected president Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.
In Cairo yesterday, the Egyptian capital’s normally heavy traffic had slowed to a trickle. Security forces stepped up their presence near concentrations of supporters of Morsi while an uneasy peace teetered on a knife-edge.
As many stayed indoors, terrified of a fresh outbreak of violence, Egypt was counting its dead. More than 36 people were killed on Friday and around 1,000 wounded in what is being termed the Friday of Rejection protests.
In Alexandria, the country’s second city, deadly clashes claimed the lives of 14 and left a further 200 injured.
In central Cairo, pro- and anti-Morsi protesters fought street battles with stones, knives and petrol bombs. Armoured personnel carriers rumbled past, and it was hours before any sort of calm was restored.
Yesterday, gunmen shot dead a Coptic Christian priest in northern Sinai in what was being described as the first sectarian attack of the protests, while Adli Mansour, the interim president, met the army chief and the interior minister for talks on a way out of the crisis.
In Cairo, the retrial of former president Hosni Mubarak, charged with corruption and involvement in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising that unseated him and propelled Egypt into its current predicament, was adjourned until mid-August.
Meanwhile, the United States and United Nations have expressed concern about Friday’s violence in Egypt.
The US state department urged an end to the unrest. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon called for demonstrators to be protected, following a spate of sexual assaults in Cairo’s increasingly lawless Tahrir Square.
Washington issued a condemnation of Friday’s killings. “We call on all Egyptian leaders to condemn the use of force and to prevent further violence among their supporters,” US spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Ban’s spokesman Farhan Haq said that it was for the people of Egypt to determine the way forward – and all people, including women, needed to be part of that process. He referred to “horrifying reports of sexual violence”.
“The secretary-general believes strongly that this is a critical juncture in which it is imperative for Egyptians to work together to chart a peaceful return to civilian control, constitutional order, and democratic governance,” Haq said.
“Egypt’s political leaders have a responsibility to signal, by their words and their actions, their commitment to a peaceful and democratic dialogue, which includes all of Egypt’s constituencies, including women.”
It is believed that since the protests began there have been at least 169 incidents of sexual crime in Tahrir Square, with women subjected to sexual assaults, harassment and rape. Despite bodyguards patrolling the square, mobs of men have been routinely surrounding lone women, ripping at their clothes until they are naked, and then sexually abusing them. One bodyguard likened it to “the circle of hell”.
It has been an extraordinary week for Egypt. Last Sunday, millions of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against Morsi, calling for him to step down amid anger over fuel and food shortages and what is being viewed as an increasing Islamification of the constitution.
The following day, Morsi and the opposition were given 48 hours to settle their disputes by the military, which threatened to impose its own solution. By Wednesday Egypt’s military chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had announced that Morsi had been deposed, to be replaced by the chief justice of the supreme constitutional court until new presidential elections could be called. No time-frame was given, and many Muslim Brotherhood leaders were arrested.
But while last week’s events have been extraordinary, their roots lie firmly in the unrest of January 2011, when former Egyptian president Mubarak was ousted at the start of the dramatic Arab Spring, which led to the democratic elections that put Morsi in power.
The year since Morsi’s inauguration, which was greeted with such excitement as Egypt experienced its first democratic elections has, say many, delivered little.
Critics claim money has been squandered and an increasingly Islamist regime quietly imposed. One senior western diplomat said last week that by early this year the writing was on the wall for Morsi.
“We had noticed, particularly in the past nine months, that they had become increasingly disconnected from reality. The army had become more and more worried by the [Brotherhood].
“The economy was being wrecked by the movement. They were spending at least $1.5 billion [£1.06bn] a month more than they should have. They were using months and months of reserves at a critical level. You couldn’t deny the underlying trend that the government was heading for bankruptcy.
“Whatever mess they had created was going to lead to civil revolt.”
There was a view among many within Egypt that Morsi was attempting to impose an Islamist agenda on cultural institutions. Five key cultural figures were sacked, including the head of the opera house and the National Library and Archives.
Meanwhile the Tamarod, or rebel movement, has been growing, meeting in cafés in Egypt’s sprawling capital to plot strategies. Using similar tactics to those employed to rally protesters during the ousting of Mubarak two-and-a-half years ago – simple tools such as smartphones, Blackberry messenger and old-fashioned petitions – word spread on the streets that demonstrations were being organised.
“By that time, the Tamarod movement was really becoming something,” said the diplomat. “And that added a dynamism and sheer scope to what had been taking place.”
An economic crisis was also growing: citizens were experiencing food and fuel shortages, with long queues forming for fuel and a government unable to solve the crisis.
It was a perfect storm for Morsi, who was toppled even quicker than his predecessor, and whose fate still remains undecided.