CAIRO — On the first day of a new era in Egypt following the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular revolution, the country's military caretakers pledged Saturday to pave the way to democratic elections and to uphold all international treaties.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did not offer a timetable for elections, however, saying only that it would "guarantee the peaceful transition of power in the framework of a free, democratic system which allows an elected civilian power to govern the country."
Seeking to reassure not only Egyptians but also a watchful international community, the army's televised statement gave a nod to the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace accord, a focal point of concern for Israel, the United States and other Western powers following the stunning change of regime in their staunchest Arab ally.
Even as they celebrated their triumph and cleaned up Tahrir Square following 18 days of demonstrations, protesters issued a list of demands of their own, beginning with the dissolution of Mubarak's cabinet and the parliament elected in a widely discredited election last fall.
A "people's communique," signed by some of the umbrella groups that organized the protests, also called for a transitional civilian government to prepare elections within nine months and for the establishment of a body to draft a new constitution.
The army, Egypt's most respected public institution, won praise from many Egyptians, as well as the Obama administration, for remaining generally neutral during the nearly three weeks of anti-Mubarak protests. But it's led by figures with close ties to the ousted regime, including Defense Minister Mohamed Tantawi, and has been accused by human rights groups of arbitrarily detaining and abusing demonstrators and their supporters.
Protest organizers urged the army to establish a timetable for the return to civilian rule.
"We don't need the military to be a transitional government," said Israa Rashed, a member of the April 6 youth movement. "We just want this government for a very short time. We need a schedule."
President Obama welcomed the army's statement and pledged to work with foreign leaders to step financial support to Egypt. Obama called British Prime Minister David Cameron, King Abdullah of Jordan and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the White House said
In an apparent effort to put new pressure on cleric-ruled Iran, Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilan criticized Tehran for banning opposition protests, thereby declaring "illegal for Iranians what it claimed was noble for Egyptians."
Mubarak's abrupt departure Friday after nearly three decades in power — on the heels of a popular revolt that toppled the long-serving president of Tunisia last month — has sent shock waves through the entrenched dictatorships of Arab world. Protests have flared in two of the most authoritarian nations, Yemen and Algeria, where news reports said that thousands marched in the streets of the capital cities but were tightly controlled by security forces.
Human Rights Watch said hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks and assault rifles on Friday attacked anti-government protesters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, while Yemeni security forces stood by. The security forces then pushed the more than 1,000 protesters out of the square where they'd gathered, and detained at least 10 people, HRW said.
Egyptians briskly set about cleaning up Tahrir Square, ground zero of the protests that transformed the Arab world's most populous nation and transfixed the world.
Under a brilliant sun, an army of volunteers — working-class laborers, suburban 20-somethings in stylish sunglasses, sprightly schoolchildren shorter than their broomsticks — fanned out across downtown Cairo to sweep trash and wash down streets. Protesters who occupied the square since Jan. 25 began taking down the razor wire, metal sheets and assorted detritus that had formed their barricades, in what felt like the start of a national catharsis.
Some wore signs saying, "Sorry for the disturbance; we're building Egypt."
Tractors hauled off the charred hulls of torched vehicles as volunteers painstakingly removed seemingly every piece of trash, down to the chewing gum stuck to the asphalt. Egyptian army, which is bidding to restore normality to a country paralyzed by the demonstrations, encouraged the clean-up.
"I'm happy because I'm cleaning my country," said 13-year-old Hunia Hassan, who reported for duty at Tahrir at 10 a.m. with her youth military camp.
While some protesters said they'd remain in the square until further democratic reforms were established, an umbrella group of protest organizers called on their followers to vacate the square.
The army relaxed a nationwide curfew to midnight-6 a.m. It also urged citizens to cooperate with a police force that clashed violently with demonstrators and has been largely absent from the streets for more than two weeks.
On Saturday evening, however, civilian volunteers were still frisking entrants to Tahrir Square for weapons and directing traffic across central Cairo.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow the developments in Egypt on McClatchy's Middle East Diary