Egypt's military rulers picked a prime minister from ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's era to head the next government, according to state television, a choice that will almost certainly intensify criticism by tens of thousands of protesters accusing the generals of trying to extend the old guard and demanding they step down immediately.
Kamal el-Ganzouri, 78, served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999 and was deputy prime minister and planning minister before that. He also was a provincial governor under the late President Anwar Sadat.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, appeared to bring its position on the crisis in Egypt closer to the protesters' demands, urging the generals to fully empower the next interim civilian government and quickly transfer power to an elected administration.
“We believe that Egypt's transition to democracy must continue, with elections proceeding expeditiously, and all necessary measures taken to ensure security and prevent intimidation,” The White House said in a statement. “Most importantly, we believe that the full transfer of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, as soon as possible.”
The announcement about the prime minister followed a meeting late Thursday between el-Ganzouri and senior military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years and served in the government headed by el-Ganzouri.
“Illegitimate, illegitimate!” chanted the crowds at Cairo's Tahrir Square on hearing news of el-Ganzouri's appointment.
“Not only was he prime minister under Mubarak, but also part of the old regime for a total of 18 years,” said protester Mohammed el-Fayoumi, 29. “Why did we have a revolution then?”
El-Ganzouri will replace Essam Sharaf, who resigned this week after nearly nine months in office amid deadly clashes between police and protesters calling for the military to immediately step down.
Sharaf was criticized for being weak and beholden to the generals. The television announcement said el-Ganzouri will enjoy “authority,” but did not elaborate.
“Ganzouri is a new Sharaf. He's old regime,” said Nayer Mustafa, 62. “The revolution was hijacked once. We won't let it happen again.”
The military has said parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak's ouster, will be held on schedule despite the unrest in Cairo and a string of other cities to the north and south of the capital. Voting starts Monday and concludes in March, meaning that el-Ganzouri could be prime minister only until a new government is formed following the seating of a new legislature.
There was no word on whether el-Ganzouri accepted the mandate given to him by Tantawi, but an announcement on his selection for the job would not have been made if he had not.
El-Ganzouri's appointment was likely to deepen the anger of the protesters, already seething over the military's perceived reluctance to dismantle the legacy of Mubarak's 29-year rule.
Protesters chanting, “Leave, leave!” filled up the downtown square on Friday for what has been dubbed by organizers as “The Last Chance Million-Man Protest” aimed at forcing the military council to yield power.
Pro-reform leader and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei was mobbed by hundreds of supporters as he arrived in the square and took part in Friday prayers, leaving shortly afterward.
“He is here to support the revolutionaries,” said protester Ahmed Awad, 35. “He came to see for himself the tragedy caused by the military.”
Swelling crowds of demonstrators chanted, “The people want to bring down the marshal”, in reference to Tantawi, who took over the reins of power from Mubarak.
The rally comes one day after the military offered an apology for the killing of nearly 40 protesters in five days of deadly clashes, mostly centered around the square. This was the longest spate of uninterrupted violence since the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11. The streets were relatively calm on Friday as a truce negotiated Thursday in Cairo continued to hold.
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square — angry at the military for failing to stabilize the country, salvage the economy or bring democracy — say they will not leave the sprawling plaza until the generals step down in favor of a civilian presidential council. Their show of resolve resembles that of the rallies which forced Mubarak to give up power.
About 5,000 supporters of the military staged their own demonstration several miles (kilometers) north of Tahrir in the district of Abbassiyah, not far from the Defense Ministry.
The military has rejected calls to immediately step down, saying its claim to power is supported by the warm welcome given to troops who took over the streets from the discredited police early in the anti-Mubarak uprising as well as an overwhelming endorsement for constitutional amendments they proposed in a March referendum.
Tantawi has offered another referendum on whether his military council should step down immediately.
Such a vote, activists say, would divide the nation and likely open the door for a deal between the military and political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's largest and best organized group, the Brotherhood is notorious for its opportunism and thirst for power. It was empowered after the fall of Mubarak, regaining legitimacy after spending nearly 60 years as an outlawed group.