Tantawi fails to defuse Egypt protests, death toll up to 37

Egyptian military ruler promises quicker transfer to civilian gov't but thousands continue protests in towns throughout Egypt; "As soon as daylight broke they started shooting," protester says of police.

Egyptian police 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian police 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CAIRO - Egypt's army chief, seeking to defuse street protests that have left 37 dead, promised a swifter handover to civilian rule but failed to convince thousands of hardcore demonstrators, some of whom battled police through the night.
One man was killed in clashes early on Wednesday in the second city Alexandria, one of several towns that saw unrest.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who has run the ruling military council since mass protests unseated his long-time ally Hosni Mubarak in February, made a faltering televised address on Tuesday in which he promised a civilian president would be elected in June, about six months sooner than planned.
Confirming Egypt's first free parliamentary election in decades will start on Monday, the council also accepted the resignation of the civilian prime minister and his cabinet, who had incensed democrats with a short-lived proposal that the army remain beyond civilian control under any new constitution.
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But Tantawi angered many of the youthful demonstrators on Cairo's Tahrir Square and in other cities by suggesting a referendum on whether military rule should end earlier - a move many saw as a ploy to appeal to the many Egyptians who fear further upheaval and to divide those from the young activists.
"Leave! Leave!" came the chants in Cairo and, in an echo of February's chorus: "The people want to topple the marshal."
Riot police guarding the approach roads to the interior ministry near Tahrir Square fired sustained volleys of teargas at protesters who had been battling them with stones throughout the night. Protesters said police had also been using buck shot and rubber bullets.
"As soon as daylight broke they started shooting, because they could see us. At night they couldn't see," said Tareq Hussein Zaki, 32, a furniture maker.
The streets were strewn with disposable surgical masks, which protesters had been using to protect themselves from the teargas, while stream of ambulances continued to rush people away from the site of the clashes.
In Tahrir Square, where hundreds of protesters had camped out overnight in tents or in the rough, people collected garbage in bags or burned it in small piles. Others passed around food.
"He must go! We won't go!" the protesters chanted against Tantawi.
It is a battle of wills whose outcome is hard to predict.
The field marshal, hanged in effigy on Tahrir Square in a visual echo of Mubarak's final days, seems intent on preserving the armed forces' vast business interests built up over six decades of effective military rule. But there was no renewal of earlier heavy-handed efforts to clear the area.
Parliamentary elections will start this coming Monday - a plan confirmed at a meeting between the army and politicians - but they will take till January to complete. It is not clear how a referendum on military rule might be organized, nor what alternative might be proposed until June's presidential vote.
Thousands remain camped in Tahrir Square
Tantawi, 76 and defense minister under Mubarak for two decades, appeared hesitant, speaking in field uniform, as he told the 80 million Egyptians his army did not want power:
"The army is ready to go back to barracks immediately if the people wish that through a popular referendum, if need be."
Tens of thousands packed Tahrir, the seat of the revolution which ended Mubarak's 30-year rule, from Tuesday afternoon and, though most drifted away, thousands remained camped through the night into Wednesday, while, in tense side-streets skirmishes, diehards pelted police who hit back with batons and teargas.
In Alexandria, a 38-year-old protester was killed. A Health Ministry official said the man was shot in the head during a confrontation outside a state security building.
Police have denied using live ammunition but most of the 36 dead in the preceding five days of protest have had bullet wounds, medics say. And demonstrators have shown off cartridge casings they say come from weapons used by the authorities.
"We will stay here until the field marshal leaves and a transitional council from the people takes over," said Abdullah Galal, 28, a computer sales manager, as people set up tents across the sprawling Tahrir traffic interchange which has become the abiding symbol of this year's "Arab Spring" revolts.
A stream of motorbikes and ambulances ferried away the injured from the skirmishing on the outskirts of the protest, while at the center of the square a mood of quiet occupation set in as blankets were brought out and small bonfires lit.