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23 April 2024

Egypt day of action marking Mubarak ouster fizzles


A planned day on Saturday of civil disobedience and strikes against Egypt's military rulers to mark a year since Hosni Mubarak's overthrow saw only a small turnout, but activists still pledged further protests.

Police said they arrested an Australian reporter and an American university student accused of paying people to protest, hours after a Cairo meeting between the military ruler and the top US military general.

The call for strikes in universities and work places came after a wave of protests pressuring the military to transfer power immediately to civilians, rather than wait for presidential elections later this year.

Strikes in the main universities attracted relatively small numbers.

"I'm on strike because of the dire situation in the country. There is no difference between the military council and Mubarak. We want them to leave now," said Mahmud Magdy from outside Cairo's Ain Shams university.

Police said they arrested reporter Austin Mackell, American student Derek Ludovici and translator Aliya Alwi in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla after they received reports the three were handing out money to incite protesters.

The announcement came after the US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey met Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi amid a growing row between the allies over Egypt's plan to try foreign pro-democracy activists, including 19 Americans.

A spokesman for Dempsey said they discussed the crackdown on the American- and foreign-funded civil society groups, but declined to give details.

The Egyptian authorities have blamed foreigners for inciting unrest in the country, and warned that strikes would further cripple Egypt's precarious economy and stability.

At Cairo University, roughly 100 students gathered outside a main hall, chanting "down with military rule" and "students and workers against oppression and exploitation."

One Cairo factory owner told AFP: "We have not noticed the effect of the calls for strike because we had already planned to reduce production today due to low activity."

Fayza Abul Naga, international cooperation minister in the military-appointed cabinet, said the low turnout showed "Egyptians from all sectors rejected the call for civil disobedience," the official MENA news agency reported.

Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent activist jailed by the military for two months for allegedly inciting violence against soldiers, said the strikes were meant to deliver a message to Egyptians.

They were aimed at "supporting and propagating the idea of civil disobedience," he told AFP, adding that activists planned to coordinate with workers over further strikes.

The military, headed by Mubarak's long-time defence minister Tantawi, had said it would deploy additional troops in response to the call for a day of disobedience.

On Friday, thousands of protesters snaked through Cairo to bypass military cordons and reach the defence ministry, chanting: "Down with military rule!"

But in a statement on state television late on Friday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) said it would not bow to threats or "plots."

"We tell you quite frankly that our dear Egypt faces plans aimed at striking at the heart of our revolution.

"We are facing plots against the nation aiming to undermine the institutions of the Egyptian state, and to topple the state itself so that chaos reigns."

Secular youth groups that spearheaded the revolt against Mubarak also took part in Saturday's strike.

On Friday, the groups had urged Egyptians "to support these strikes in order to end the unjust rule and build a nation in which justice, freedom and dignity prevail."

The call for strikes and protests divided Egypt's political forces, with the Muslim Brotherhood -- the big winner in parliamentary elections -- coming out against it.

Many Egyptians complain that the economy has been battered by the lack of security and deadly violence in the wake of the 18-day revolt that forced Mubarak to resign on February 11 last year.

Protests against the military, idolised immediately after the revolt for not siding with Mubarak, have heightened fears among many that the Arab world's most populous nation could descend into chaos.

Young activists who spearheaded the revolt believe the generals will try to exercise power through a pliant civilian government after presidential elections set to take place before the end of June.

The activists say the military should hand power to parliament, elected over three rounds in November and December, or to a civilian council ahead of presidential polls.

The SCAF on Friday said it was determined to transfer power to an elected civilian body.

"Presidential power will pass to the president of the republic after the election ending the period of transition, and your faithful army will revert to its original role," it said.