Middle East

Can Egypt's military meet people's demands?

A man photographs his daughter on an Egyptian army tank, in Tahrir Square - 14 February 2011
Image caption Can the military maintain the people's trust for long?

With the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians are turning to their new rulers, the military, for answers to political, social and economic problems. The BBC News website's Middle East editor Tarik Kafala reports from Cairo.

Egypt's capital Cairo is a city under military rule. While life is getting back to normal and Tahrir Square has been cleared, there are tanks everywhere.

In places the soldiers appear to be there for show - to reassure as much as anything else, and to be photographed with smiling citizens.

Elsewhere, outside the state radio and television building and around Hosni Mubarak's former residence in the outskirts of the city, the soldiers mean business.

They are heavily-armed, ranged behind coils of razor wide, tanks and armoured vehicles parked to form an impenetrable barrier.

Anger at corruption

On Monday, hundreds of blue collar workers gathered at the state TV building hoping to get as much attention as possible for their demands for better pay and working conditions.

Mechanics and bus drivers waved pay slips, a record of what they see as their scandalously low pay.

On printed sheets and banners, specific demands were made: Better pay, fairer contracts, and the sacking of named bosses who they said had personally benefited from the privatisations of public services.

A figure of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (£126; $205) appeared on several banners - the minimum monthly wage that labour organisations have been campaigning for. It is about twice the average wage of a skilled Egyptian state employee.

When asked how the transport department was suddenly expected to double the pay of thousands of workers, one protester said simply that the army should take over the department.

Tamer Fathy, of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services, sees demands that are essentially economic or social as being inseparable from the wider demands for political rights.

"People are calling for better pay. But behind it is a real anger at corruption, the deals made and bribes paid. The strikers are protesting at this above all."

Search for the disappeared

Activists for Democracy, a coalition that represents protesters, human rights groups and civil society groups, has crystallised what it says are the demands of the revolutionaries that saw off the 30 years of Mubarak rule.

These include an interim government, a new constitution and parliament, an end to emergency law and democratic elections within six months. Some of these have been met, others may be in the near future.

Image caption Revolution won - but can the new leaders meet demands for better pay?

But other demands, such as the release of political prisoners and the prosecution of police involved in recent abuses surrounding the protests, may be harder to meet.

Ghada Shahbandar, a board member at the Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights, says her group is trying to locate people who disappeared during the recent protests.

Her group is approaching the military, the interior ministry and the prime minister's office, in the hope of co-operation. She too expects the military rulers will deliver.

"These are exceptional times. We will have to deal with the military temporarily to guarantee the political and social rights we are demanding."

"Until we have evidence otherwise, we assume that that the army's involvement in politics will be temporary and we have to go along with the current situation."

'Waiting period'

This trust, however wary, may be unrealistic. The Egyptian military was the backbone of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, it has its own economic interests and may not be the unified and disciplined institution that it seems from the outside.

"We're in a waiting period, waiting for military communiques seven eight and nine," says Max Rodenbeck, the Economist's chief Middle East writer and a long-term Cairo resident.

"There are a number of mini-revolts under way in the many key government ministries, and we can expect a series of slow purges in government institutions, perhaps over years," he says.

"One of the many worries is that the military is so isolated from society, that it has been for so long a world unto itself. This was very useful when it had to step in to take control of the situation in a crisis. But does it have the management and communications skills and network to manage this situation?"

The immediate test is over the labour protests which have led to the closure of the post office and huge transport problems.

The most recent military communique gently called on people to go back to work in the national interest. But the authorities may soon find themselves having to having to declare and enforce a moratorium on strikes.