Egypt’s military rulers signaled Monday that presidential elections may be held earlier than planned in what appears to be an effort to stem political turmoil and calm five days of protests that have shaken the nation following a soccer riot last week that killed 74 people.
The military is under growing pressure from activists to step down and hand power to a civilian administration. The presidential poll had been planned for June. But the army-backed government said that start of nominations would be moved up a month to March, suggesting elections could take place in May or earlier.
At least 13 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since Thursday in nationwide demonstrations that blamed the police and military for not preventing the soccer riot in Port Said. Anger over lack of security has intensified calls for the army to honor the democratic goals of the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak a year ago.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been reviled by activists for months but has enjoyed the support of much of the country. That allegiance, however, began to wane over the weekend as videos from Port Said showed security forces standing Wednesday by as scores of people were killed by hooligans.
The military, which has often offered concessions only after violent protests, announced the possibility of early elections as clashes between demonstrators and police have turned the heart of the capital into a battle zone. Activists have been planning labor strikes and a civil disobedience campaign for Feb. 11, the anniversary of Mubarak’s overthrow.
The newly elected parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, has criticized the military. The Brotherhood has been negotiating with the army on the writing of a constitution and the transition to a democracy, but the Port Said riot prompted some lawmakers to denounce the army to avoid losing credibility with their constituents.
“The citizens of the nation fear for their lives and safety, the revolutionary forces are disappointed over the political path the nation is taking and the old regime is still haunting the country with its mischievous schemes,” said Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and a leading presidential candidate. “Power should be handed over to an elected president by the end of April maximum.”
A political advisory panel appointed by the army has recommended that presidential elections be set for May 16, according to state media. The panel said the generals, who want to ensure the military’s authority is not pared down in the new constitution, would then step aside in early June.
It is uncertain if the prospect of early elections will appease protesters who want the military to leave power immediately.
The crowds at demonstrations have been dwindling since Thursday; many activists say clashes with police are undermining peaceful resistance. But young men wearing gas masks and carrying rocks while marching toward police barricades believe street battles are the best strategy.
“We have to stay and keep putting pressure on the Interior Ministry,” said Yehia Abouf, a university engineering student. “The military may not give in whether by peaceful rallies in Tahrir Square or confrontations with police. But we have to keep trying to fight them anyway.”