Crowds swell on Tahrir Square ahead of Tantawi address

Protesters again battle police in streets as generals scramble to cope with cabinet's proffered resignation; at least 33 reported dead in ongoing clashes.

November 22, 2011 15:59
3 minute read.
Egypt Tahrir Square million-man

Egypt Tahrir Square million-man_311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

CAIRO - Egyptians frustrated with military rule battled police in the streets again on Tuesday as the generals scrambled to cope with the cabinet's proffered resignation after bloodshed that has jolted plans for Egypt's first free election in decades.

In a stinging verdict on nine months of army control, London-based rights group Amnesty International accused the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of brutality sometimes exceeding that of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

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Thousands of people defied tear gas wafting across Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focus of protests that have swelled since Friday into the gravest challenge yet to the generals who replaced Mubarak and who seem reluctant to relinquish military power and privilege.

The army council, headed by a 76-year-old field marshal who served as Mubarak's defense minister for two decades, was due to meet political parties to discuss the crisis, in which at least 36 people have been killed and more than 1,250 wounded.

The United States, which gives Egypt's military $1.3 billion a year in aid, has called for restraint on all sides and urged Egypt to proceed with elections due to start on Monday despite the violence, a stance broadly echoed by many European leaders.

Protesters waving flags and singing songs skirmished with security forces in and around Tahrir Square, where banners read "Save Egypt from thieves and the military" and "Handing power to civilians is the demand of all Egyptians".

Youth groups have called for a mass turnout later in the day to press demands for the military to give way to civilian rule now, rather than according to its own ponderous timetable, which could keep it in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

Protester runs from tear gas in clashes with riot police (Reuters)

Security forces put up barbed wire on streets leading from Tahrir to the Interior Ministry, but an army officer on the spot said protesters had repeatedly removed the makeshift barriers.

"Come to Tahrir, tomorrow we will overthrow the field marshal!" youthful protesters chanted, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the army commander.

Tantawi and his colleagues will not formally accept the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's government until they have agreed on a new premier, an army source said.

It was not clear if the army would try to replace the whole cabinet - a tough challenge with polling only days away - or just ditch the unpopular interior and information ministers.

Many Egyptians respect the army and praise its role in easing Mubarak out on Feb. 11. But tolerance for army rule has worn thin, especially after attempts to set up constitutional principles that would keep the military beyond civilian control.

On Monday night the army council called for calm and voiced its "deepest regret" for the casualties so far.

Islamist presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, who had joined the protests in Tahrir Square, described the apology as worthless. "I call on them to step down," he said.

Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak's fall, while sectarian clashes, labor unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralyzed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability.

Several banks in central Cairo were closed on Tuesday as a precaution against looting, the state news agency said.

A protester looks on as riot police throw stones during clashes near Tahrir Square (Reuters)

Amnesty International said the military had made only empty promises to improve human rights. Military courts had tried thousands of civilians and emergency law had been extended.

Torture had continued in army custody, and there were consistent reports of security forces employing armed "thugs" to attack protesters, it added in a report.

"The SCAF has continued the tradition of repressive rule which the Jan. 25 demonstrators fought so hard to get rid of," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa acting director.

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