CAIRO - On the eve of landmark elections, Egypt's military ruler warned Sunday of "extremely grave" consequences if the turbulent nation does not pull through its current crisis — an attempt to rally the public behind his council of generals in the face of pressure from protesters to step down immediately.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi urged voters to turn out for the start of parliamentary elections Monday despite the chaos in the streets after nine days of protests and clashes that some have dubbed a "second revolution." The vote will be the first since Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February in a popular uprising and it was meant to usher in democracy after decades of dictatorship. However, it has already been marred by the new wave of demonstrations.
Tantawi claimed "foreign hands" were behind the latest wave of unrest. His assertions were similar to those made by Mubarak in the final days before he was ousted. Mubarak frequently warned chaos would ensue if his regime fell, presenting his authoritarian rule as the alternative of order and security. Tantawi was Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years.
"We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections," he said in comments carried by the nation's official news agency. "Egypt is at a crossroads — either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that."
The military took power when Mubarak stepped down. But it has come under intense criticism for most of the past nine months for its failure to restore security, stop the rapid worsening of the economy or introduce the far-reaching reforms called for by the youth groups behind Mubarak's fall and the ongoing protest movement. Tantawi rejected calls for the ruling military council to immediately step down.
His warning came as thousands of protesters were filling Cairo's Tahrir Square for another massive demonstration demanding the military give up power in favour of a civilian presidential council and a "national salvation" government to run the country's affairs until a president is elected.
It was the ninth straight day of a revival of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak. At least 41 protesters have been killed in and more than 2,000 have been wounded, most of them in Cairo.
At the same time, Egyptians were preparing to vote amid the chaos. With protesters in the streets, there are fears of violence at polling stations. And the population is sharply polarized and confused over the nation's direction.
Islamic parties are expected to dominate the election, but the political crisis casts doubt on the legitimacy of the vote and could render the parliament that emerges irrelevant.
"I am not going to vote tomorrow because everyone who is running is a thief and only cares for the seat they want to sit in," said Abu Ahmed, a 36-year-old fruit vendor in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. "Many times they've tried to buy my vote with a bag of food or money. They know that I'm poor and they want to take advantage of me. I don't read or write, but I know that Tantawi needs to go," he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best organized political group in Egypt, is expected to dominate the elections along with its Islamist allies. The group has stayed away from the current wave of protests, careful not to do anything that would derail the vote.
However, the military has said the next parliament will have limited powers, and suggested that it will retain the right to appoint and dismiss the Cabinet. The issue promises to put the military and the Brotherhood on a collision course. A dispute between the two could destabilize the country further, adding to economic and security woes.
"The next parliament will have no power," predicted accountant Said Younis in Tahrir. "What we want is a salvation government or even a revolutionary government."
Heavy limitations on the next parliament undermine the very relevance of the vote. The next government will not be determined by legislators but by the head of state, which at the moment is the military, though the protesters want it to step aside. If the military clings to its status, there are likely to be stormy negotiations over the formation of a government, and the protesters will try to influence events by bringing numbers to the streets. In any case, lawmakers at best will be on the sidelines trying to make their voice heard.
The other main duty of parliament — creating an assembly to draft the next constitution — may also be largely out of its hands. The military has insisted on the power to name a large part of the assembly, and there is enormous pressure on all sides to form an assembly that represents all factions no matter what their proportions in the parliament.
It is not even clear how long this parliament will be in place. The multi-stage election for the two houses stretches on until March. Then, under the latest timetable put forward by the generals, the constitution must be written and approved by late June. No one has addressed the question of whether the parliament being created now could continue in place under a new constitution or whether a new election would be needed.
A high turnout in the elections, staggered over three stages scheduled to conclude in March, will likely benefit the standing of the military since the vote is a crucial part of a road map it proposed for the transfer of power.
In some ways, a high turnout could undermine the cause of the tens of thousands of anti-military protesters. A low turnout would give credence to the protesters' claims that the vote lack relevance and legitimacy and, some contend, should wait until the military are back in the barracks.
Tantawi said the military will follow through with its somewhat vague road map for handing over power. The ruling council never set a precise date for transferring authority to an elected civilian administration, only pledging that presidential elections — the last step in the handover process — will be held before the end of June, 2012.
Tantawi also accused foreign powers he did not name of meddling in Egypt's affairs.
"None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands," he said. "We will not allow a small minority of people who don't understand to harm Egypt's stability," he said, apparently alluding to the protesters in Tahrir, epicenter of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Al-Shalchi reported from Alexandria, Egypt.