CAIRO — Tens of thousands of anti-military protesters streamed into downtown Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square on Tuesday as the nation waited anxiously for the head of the embattled ruling military council to break his silence on unrest that threatens to derail next week’s elections.
Clashes continued along the narrow streets leading to the square, the nerve center of the uprising that brought down authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak and which has now been reenergized with calls for the council to step aside and let an interim civilian authority handle the rocky transitional period.
Caretaker Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, who handed in his resignation Monday along with the rest of the Cabinet, told reporters outside the Cabinet building that political actors must put national interests ahead of their individual priorities. The military council hasn’t formally accepted the resignations, and the ministers have agreed to stay on until their replacements are named.
“We are very close to our most important goal, which is holding elections on the scheduled date,” Sharaf said. “This is the first step in the transfer of power and to democratic rule, and I call on everyone to act with restraint.”
Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi was expected to give his first address since the crisis began over the weekend with security forces attacking unarmed protesters who were staging a sit-in against military rule.
Other demonstrators came to their aid and the clashes snowballed into an uprising that’s nearly identical to the one that brought down Mubarak in February. The council rolled out what it billed as concessions, but protesters – outraged by the heavy casualties of the past few days – said they’ll reject any offer short of Tantawi’s resignation and the transfer of power to an interim civilian body.
“If the supreme council needs to save this country, they should come out and apologize to the public and announce that they are in talks to form a national salvation government,” said Ambassador Ezzedin Shokry, a political science professor, told the state-run Nile News channel Tuesday. “The military government has gotten the public used to the fact that they never take action unless they’re pressure. That’s why protesters went down to the square and will keep occupying the square.”
One independent Cairo newspaper, Tahrir, cited “trusted sources” as saying Tantawi would transfer the council’s authority to Egypt’s highest court. The information couldn’t be independently verified, and the council reportedly was locked in all-day crisis talks with the country’s biggest political powers.
On the agenda for the talks is the formation of a so-called “national salvation government,” which would comprise representatives of Egypt’s main political fronts and presumably govern until presidential elections. The military council had hoped to stay in power until presidential polls it had scheduled for an undetermined date in 2013.
Also Tuesday, state television aired footage 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, crude explosives. The video also showed their ID cards, including an Indiana driver 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. “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.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)