Egypt's military leader promised a faster transition to civilian rule, saying Tuesday that presidential elections will be held by the end of June 2012. But the major concession was immediately rejected by tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square who responded with chants of “leave, leave” now.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi vowed landmark parliamentary elections will start on schedule on Monday, the first vote since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in an uprising nine months ago. And he said the military was prepared to hold a referendum on immediately transferring power to a civilian authority if people demand it.
“Our demands are clear,” said Khaled El-Sayed, a protester from the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary election. “We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority.” He also demanded that the commander of the military police and the Interior Minister, who is in charge of the police, be tried for the “horrific crimes” of the past few days, when 29 people were killed in clashes, most of them in Cairo.
The standoff culminated four days of clashes and demonstrations around the country that have constituted the most sustained challenge so far to nine months of military rule. It plunges the country deeper into a crisis that may only hamper the democratic transition the protesters are fighting for.
In a televised address to the nation, Tantawi did not mention a specific date for the transfer of power, although the presidential election has long been considered the final step in the process. The military has previously floated the end of next year or early 2013 as the date for the presidential vote.
“The armed forces, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has no desire to rule and puts the country's interests above all. It is ready to hand over responsibility immediately and return to its original duty of defending the country if the people want that and through a public referendum if it is necessary,” he said.
In his brief address, Tantawi sought to cast the military as the nation's foremost patriots and angrily denounced what he called attempts to taint its reputation. He didn't utter a single word about the four days of protests in Tahrir Square.
By nightfall, Tahrir was jammed with a massive crowd of tens of thousands who immediately rejected Tantawi's proposals with chants of “erhal,” or leave.
“We are not leaving, he leaves,” chanted the protesters. “The people want to bring down the field marshal,” they shouted in scenes starkly reminiscent of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak nine months ago.
A youth group that played a key role in the anti-Mubarak uprising said it decided to remain in the square until the military handed over power to a civilian presidential council to run the country's affairs. Beside a representative of the military, the council should include pro-reform leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, said the April 6 group.
“The military council has failed to manage the transitional period, and the generals' hands are tainted by the blood of the nation's youth and have been collaborating with the counterrevolution,” the group said in a statement.
“What does he exactly mean by a referendum?” asked 50-year-old lawyer Hossam Mohsen, who was in the square. “We have already held a referendum by being here in the square. Egypt is right here.”
Tantawi said he has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's civilian government.
Aboul-Ela Madi, Mohammed Selim el-Awa, two politicians who attended a five-hour crisis meeting with the military rulers earlier on Tuesday, said the generals wanted to hand over power to a civilian government by July 1, a date that was not mentioned by Tantawi.
They said the military intended to replace Sharaf's cabinet with a “national salvation” government.
He and Al-Awa were among 12 political party representatives and presidential hopefuls who attended the meeting with the military council. Not all parties were represented — none of the youthful, liberal groups behind the uprising attended. ElBaradei also was absent.
Madi and el-Awa also said the military agreed to release all protesters detained since Saturday and to put on trial police and army officers responsible for protesters' deaths.
The military's concession came less than a week before the first parliamentary election since Mubarak's ouster. The elections start on Nov. 28 and are staggered through to March next year.
The Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, said protesters were continuing attempts to storm the ministry near Tahrir Square. It said some protesters climbed over buildings near the ministry and lobbed firebombs into the compound. Others, it said, set fire on cars outside the ministry and opened fire on policemen, wounding five. The ministry was the focus of most of the clashes and violence near Tahrir on Tuesday.
The ministry denied charges that police were using live ammunition or pellets against the protesters.
Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy, Hadeel al-Shalchi contributed to this report.