CAIRO — The head of Egypt's embattled ruling military council on Tuesday pledged a faster transfer of power to civilians and a new caretaker government, but his promises were instantly rejected by tens of thousands of protesters who roared their objection to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi's offer in one word: "Leave!"
It was the same word they had chanted before President Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign nine months ago when protesters also dismissed the president's concessions as too little, too late.
The parallels between then and now were impossible to ignore.
In his first remarks since fierce clashes broke out Saturday, Tantawi gave short shrift to the uprising's main demand: the ruling generals' immediate ouster and the appointment of a civilian interim authority. He offered no apology for the 34 confirmed dead and the 1,700 injured in clashes between Egyptian soldiers and demonstrators. He even claimed that the military had "never killed a single Egyptian, man or woman" — an assertion easily refuted by the thousands who've witnessed an onslaught against demonstrators in recent days.
"We're not looking for the presidency," Tantawi said. "We're doing our job for the sake of God and nation."
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, which on Tuesday was filled with the biggest crowds since the revolt that toppled Mubarak, were incredulous. Even as Tantawi spoke, ambulances snaked through the crowds carrying the wounded. At an alleyway medical station, volunteer doctors said they'd treated more than 300 protesters on Tuesday alone for tear gas inhalation and wounds from birdshot and rubber bullets fired by security forces.
The Health Ministry acknowledged that some of the deaths had been caused by live ammunition.
"If they had announced what they said today on Friday, I would've accepted it, but instead they attacked the people and killed them. They're shameless and they should leave," said Ahmed Abu Nouh, an Islamist from the rigid Salafi branch who vowed to continue defying his clerics and coming to the square until the end of military rule.
Unseating the entrenched generals, however, is a much more formidable task than toppling Mubarak. The military is vastly more popular with Egypt's 80 million citizens, and analysts said the council is gambling that the moves announced Tuesday would appease a so-called "silent majority" that's fed up with the economic decline and lawlessness of the transitional period, and seeks a firm hand to right Egypt's course.
At the end of Tantawi's speech, he threw out the idea of a referendum in which Egyptian voters would decide whether the military council should step aside now or later. It seemed a safe offer, given approval ratings that have taken a hit from the recent violence but remain high, according to opinion surveys. There was no mention of how such a vote would work.
"(The council) is completely ready to hand over responsibility immediately and to return to its original mission to secure the country, if that is what the people want, through a popular referendum, if necessity dictates it," Tantawi said.
Michael Hanna, a Middle East scholar at the Century Foundation in New York, agreed that a silent majority exists, but he added that no one can predict what will happen if tens of thousands of protesters continue to rally.
"The next steps will depend on how unified opposition political forces are and how well they manage to establish credible political leadership that can link the ethos of street protest with political action," said Hanna, who's closely followed the revolution both in the United States and on frequent trips to Cairo.
One key political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest Islamist group and best-organized political force, declined to press for the military council's immediate departure but said it would insist that the army return to its barracks in July. The Freedom and Justice Party is expected to do well in parliamentary elections and is adamantly opposed to any further upheaval that would jeopardize next week's polls, which begin Monday.
But the Brotherhood's decision not to participate in Tuesday's rally drew heavy criticism from non-Islamist activists who said they felt betrayed. They accused the group's leaders of putting their dreams of an electoral sweep ahead of revolutionary goals for civilian rule and real democratic reform.
"We would like to support the demonstration, but it's better for the nation if we do not," said Mohamed al Barkooki, a Freedom and Justice candidate in the port city of Alexandria, where thousands of protesters also took to the streets Tuesday and fought off attempts by security forces to disperse them. At least one person was killed and 28 injured there, the Health Ministry said.
"We may lose some support because of this decision, but our participation would only increase the bloodshed," Barkooki added.
The Brotherhood, however, was not immune to the negative reaction among the protesters to Tantawi's speech. In a statement that appeared to be an effort to bridge the widening gap between its position and that of others, the Freedom and Justice Party went out of its way to appear to criticize Tantawi by calling for an investigation into his claim that "some powers that are hidden are trying to cause a sort of rift between the people and the armed forces."
"The party awaits more than apologies and regrets. We await immediate measures to uncover the truth of the 'hidden hands' mentioned by Marshal Tantawi in his speech and to put them to trial for crimes they've committed, especially in the latest incidents," the party's secretary-general, Mohamed Saad l Katatny, said in the statement.
Tantawi's speech capped a day of drama that saw the military council, noted for its secrecy and inaccessibility, hold crisis talks with some of the country's biggest political actors, including the Brotherhood, Salafi factions, presidential candidate Amr Moussa, and representatives of smaller liberal or centrist blocs.
News reports said the council was trying to cobble together a "national salvation government" to replace the outgoing caretaker Cabinet led by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Sharaf's government resigned Monday to protest the violence.
Details were scant on who that replacement government would include. Nobel laureate and former U.N. energy chief Mohammed ElBaradei was rumored to be a frontrunner for the premier's post, but he chose not to attend Tuesday's meeting, saying in a statement that he preferred to act as "a connection point between the supreme council and the revolutionaries in this period."
Rejection of Tantawi's concessions also was swift among protesters in Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, where the crowds matched or even surpassed those from the January uprising against Mubarak.
A peaceful march of thousands made its way from a landmark mosque to the military's northern headquarters. As the evening wore on, many demonstrators appeared to be moving from the peaceful rally to a violent one outside the Ministry of Interior building, where demonstrators and riot police clashed for a fourth straight night.
Activists in the field hospital there said at least 12 people had died since Saturday because of asphyxiation from the tear gas, but other causes of death were recorded by employees at the morgue, the activists said. The official death toll notes only two fatalities from the city.
Demonstrators, who hailed from a cross-section of Egyptian society, said they would stay in the streets until Tantawi stepped down and the military council handed over power to a civilian government.
"This is just like when Mubarak refused to step down," said Aminah Abdullah, whose 17-year-old daughter was recovering from inhaling tear gas.
When asked whether she supported her daughter's decision to take part in the violence, Abdullah scoffed.
"We are both activists," she said. "How can I tell her no?"
Also Tuesday, state television aired footage from Cairo of three American college students who were described by the news anchor as in detention on suspicion of "attacking security forces" with Molotov cocktails outside the Interior Ministry, where battles have raged for days. The Interior Ministry said the men would be referred to investigative authorities to "verify their identities and ascertain the motives behind such attacks."
The footage showed the young men staring glumly into a camera that panned out to show items used in the making of Molotov cocktails. The video also showed their ID cards, including an Indiana driver's license. There was no mention of Egyptian authorities' evidence against them.
Lisa Anderson, president of the American University in Cairo, confirmed in an email that all three detainees were U.S. citizens enrolled at the university as study-abroad students.
"They are still in detention," Anderson wrote at midday Tuesday. "We are in touch with their families; we are working with the U.S. embassy to assure that they are safe."
Many foreigners — journalists, aid workers, exchange students and even some tourists — typically are present in Tahrir Square on big protest days. State media is accused of whipping up xenophobia and trying to discredit the protest movement by focusing on the foreigners' presence and implying that "foreign hands" are orchestrating the unrest.
(Allam reported from Cairo, Enders, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Alexandria. Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed from Cairo.)
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011