Egypt army head says military does not want power

Tantawi's speech ignites crowds of over 100,000 in Tahrir Square who chant for him to step down immediately; field marshal says army would quit if people vote for it in referendum; council accept PM's resignation.

Tahrir Square as protesters chant slogans (R) 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Tahrir Square as protesters chant slogans (R) 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
CAIRO - Egypt's army would quit power immediately if the people voted for it in a referendum and a presidential election will be held by mid-2012, the head of the ruling military council said on Tuesday.
In a speech announcing concessions to over 100,000 protesters who massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand the army withdraw from power, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said the council accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet.
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"The armed forces, represented by their Supreme Council, do not aspire to govern and put the supreme interest of the country above all considerations," Tantawi said in the televised address.
He said the army was "completely ready to hand over responsibility immediately, and to return to its original mission to protect the nation if the nation wants that, via a popular referendum, if need be."
"We agreed on July as the month to transfer power to a civilian president," Emad Abdel Ghafour, head of the Salafi Islamist Nour (Light) Party, told Reuters.
He said a president would be elected in June ahead of a power transfer in July. Under the previous army timetable, the vote might not have taken place until late 2012 or early 2013.
Anger against the military council exploded this month after a cabinet proposal to set out constitutional principles that would permanently shield the army from civilian oversight.
A veiled protester chants slogans (Reuters)A veiled protester chants slogans (Reuters)
Ghafour and other politicians at the meeting said parliamentary elections would start as planned on Monday.
The concessions have been wrenched from the military by five days of protests against army rule in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere amid violence that has cost at least 36 lives.
It seemed doubtful if they would satisfy the demonstrators, who again braved clouds of tear gas to converge on Tahrir Square to demand that the generals relinquish power immediately.
Fahmy Ali, one protester in Tahrir Square, said the concessions did not go far enough. "We demand a full purge of the system and the removal of the military council," he told Reuters.
Protesters earlier hanged from a lamp post an effigy of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the 76-year-old army chief who served as Mubarak's defense minister for two decades.
Protesters show the soles of their shoes as they chant slogans (Reuters)Protesters show the soles of their shoes as they chant slogans (Reuters)
Ahmed Shouman, an army major who gained fame as the first officer to join protests against Mubarak, returned to Tahrir to join the demonstrations. Ecstatic protesters carried him on their shoulders. Shouman was acquitted in a military court after his defection in February, but was suspended from service.
About 5,000 people also marched in the port city of Alexandria to join 2,000 already demonstrating against army rule outside a military command headquarters, witnesses said.
The unrest has knocked Egypt's markets. The benchmark share index has fallen 11 percent since Thursday, hitting its lowest level since March 2009. The Egyptian pound fell to its weakest against the dollar since January 2005.
In a stinging verdict on nine months of army control, rights group Amnesty International accused the military council of brutality sometimes exceeding that of Mubarak.