Egypt’s army rulers hike tone against protesters

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s ruling military escalated its tone against pro-democracy activists Wednesday, warning of an attempt to “topple the state,” as government media said a plot had been uncovered to use upcoming protests to throw the country into a civil war.

The statements stepped up a campaign by the military that has seemed intended to demonize protesters in the eyes of the Egyptian public. The warnings could signal a heavier crackdown on activists who demand that the generals who took power after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February step down to let civilians rule.

They come after more than four days of heavy clashes as soldiers tried to break up protests outside parliament and the Cabinet headquarters in a crackdown that killed 14 people and left hundreds injured. The fighting eased Tuesday, but the atmosphere in Egypt’s already stormy transition has become even more bitter and confused.

The generals and the pro-democracy activists who led the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak are locked in a worsening confrontation. Some activists have put forward proposals to try to defuse the clash by having the military hand over power in January, either to the head of the next parliament or by holding early presidential elections to choose a new head of state to replace the generals.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, announced that parliament would convene January 23, just two days before the one-year anniversary of the start of Egypt’s uprising, according to the state news agency. It appeared to be a move aimed at blunting an expected mass demonstration on January 25.

Meanwhile, the country’s other power player, the Muslim Brotherhood, which took part in the uprising that toppled Mubarak, has stayed out of the fray, refusing to join protests or to back demands that military move up its planned handover of power in June. Their stance weakens the political pressure on the military and bolsters the generals’ hands — even though the Brotherhood insists it wants the army to eventually step aside.

Instead, the fundamentalist Brotherhood has been focused on ongoing, multistage parliamentary elections, which it is dominating. Its main concern is to try to ensure the power of the new legislature, in which it will be the biggest faction, giving it a strong hand in writing the next constitution.

“We don’t get into conflict with anybody. We don’t believe in this policy (of protests). Any clash is a pure evil. We don’t have any interest in confrontation,” said Sobhi Saleh, a leading Brotherhood figure who won a parliament seat in an earlier round of the elections.

The army’s crackdown has drawn heavy U.S. criticism, particularly after soldiers beat women protesters and stripped one half naked in the streets. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called treatment of the women a “disgrace,” and on Wednesday the State Department said she spoke by phone to Egypt’s prime minister to register deep U.S. concerns.

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