EGYPTIAN PROTESTERS DEMAND FREEDOM, SLAM VIOLENCE THREAT
PROTESTERS yesterday at a rally in central Cairo condemned calls by politicians and officials loyal to President Hosni Mubarak for security forces to open fire on pro-democracy demonstrations.
About 70 people, according to Reuters joined the protest, the third in two weeks calling for more political freedoms and an end to emergency rule that allows indefinite detentions in the Arab country.
Though small, the demonstrations could gain traction ahead of a parliamentary poll later this year and a 2011 presidential vote that might mark an end to Mubarak's 29-year rule.
Hundreds of police were yesterday on guard for the protesters, who included the Sixth of April Youth movement and political opponents to Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP).
The protest came two days after a lawmaker loyal to Mubarak said demonstrators should be shot at.
“I would have questioned the Interior Ministry for being soft on these outlaws … Do not use water hoses to disperse these outlaws, shoot at them directly,” NDP member Nashaat al-Qasas told Egypt's parliament.
Protests have been rare in Egupt but briefly gained momentum around the first multi-candidate presidential vote in 2005, when Washington was pushing for more democracy in the Middle East.
Rights advocates say security forces have used rubber bullets and tear gas to quell protests in the past, methods they say are meant to crush dissent and keep the government in power.
Officials say Egypt allows freedom of speech, but the independent al-Shorouk newspaper quoted Hamid Rashid, an aide to the interior minister, as saying that “the law permits police and security forces to use force and open fire on protesters if they disrupt national security.”
He said protesters broke the law by taking to the streets on April 6, when security forces beat and detained some of them.
An emergency law instated after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 gives authorities scope to detain people indefinitely under the banner of national security.
Washington has criticised Cairo's handling of the protestors, but Egypt, one of the biggest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, has dismissed the comments as interference.
While the NDP is expected to win a huge majority in parliament, Mubarak has not said if he will run again. Even if he steps down, many Egyptians say the 81-year-old, who recently underwent surgery, will try to hand power to his son, Gamal.
Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, could shake up the race if he runs.
Mohammed Adel, one of the protest organisers, said threats of violence showed the government's vulnerability.
In a separate development, Egypt has insisted on its traditional share of the Nile river and warned basin countries against signing a water-sharing agreement in which it is excluded.
The warning came days after Nile basin countries meeting in Egypt failed to agree on a framework to reallocate shares from the river, a longstanding demand by several up-stream countries.
“Egypt's share of the Nile's water is a historic right that Egypt has defended throughout its history,” Mohammed Allam, minister of water resources and irrigation, told parliament.
Allam added that Egypt saw the matter as a national security issue.
“Egypt reserves the right to take whatever course it sees suitable to safeguard its share,”" he said.
“If the Nile basin countries unilaterally signed the agreement it would be considered the announcement of the Nile Basin Initiative's death,” Allam added.
The Nile Basin Initiative, the World Bank funded umbrella group of Nile basin countries, has put off signing a water sharing pact over objections from Egypt and Sudan.
At the heart of the dispute is a 1929 agreement between Egypt and Britain, acting on behalf of its African colonies along the 5,584-kilometre (3,470-mile) river, which gave Egypt veto power over upstream projects.
An agreement between Egypt and Sudan in 1959 allowed Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of water each year – 87 per cent of the Nile's flow – and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres.
Some of the Nile Basin countries, which include Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo, say past treaties are unfair and they want an equitable water-sharing agreement that would allow for more irrigation and power projects.
Egypt, a mostly arid country that relies on the Nile for the majority of its water, argues up-stream countries could make better use of rainfall and have other sources of water.