Concessions of power to civilian authorities by July next year were immediately rejected by the tens of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square.
Tantawi tells Egyptians that elections will go ahead
CAIRO // Egypt's ruling military council agreed yesterday to speed up a transfer of power to civilian authorities by holding presidential elections by next July and consulted with political parties on forming a new cabinet.
But the concessions were immediately rejected by the tens of thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square, where demonstrators were in the fourth day of staging one of the largest anti-government rallies since a popular uprising swept president Hosni Mubarak from power in February.
"We are not leaving. He leaves," they chanted, referring to the military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and reminiscent of the chants hurled at Mr Mubarak less than 10 months ago.
Mr Tantawi later told the nation in a televised address that the armed forces are prepared to hold a referendum on immediately transferring power to a civilian authority if people demand it.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces "does not aspire to hold power and is fully willing to transfer responsibility immediately should the people wish it, through a popular referendum if necessary", Mr Tantawi said.
He said the council had accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet but had "tasked it to carry on working until a new government is formed ... to handle the transition in cooperation with the Supreme Council".
Mr Tantawi said his council was also committed to holding parliamentary elections on schedule on November 28 and to "electing a president of the republic by the end of June 2012". Previously, the military rulers had floated dates of late next year or early 2013 as the timetable.
He also sought to cast the military as the nation's foremost patriots and angrily denounced what he called attempts to taint its reputation. "We never killed a single Egyptian man or woman because the Egyptian military believes it is part and parcel of the Egyptian people," he said.
Aboul-Ela Madi was one of the dozen political party representatives and presidential hopefuls who attended the five-hour crisis meeting with the military council yesterday.
"This is the maximum we can reach. The [Tahrir] square is something and the politics is something else," Mr Madi said.
Mr Madi also said the military agreed to release all protesters detained since Saturday and to put on trial police and army officers responsible for protesters' deaths. Nearly 30 protesters have been killed since Saturday.
The military's concessions came less than a week before the first parliamentary election since the removal of Mr Mubarak. The elections are staggered over three months.
"Our demands are clear. We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority," said Khaled El Sayed, a member of the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the upcoming elections. He said the commander of the military police and the interior minister, who is in charge of the police, must be tried for the "horrific crimes" of the past few days.
The country's first legislative elections are scheduled for Monday, but observers are worried the four days of unrest in Tahrir and several other cities in Egypt will destabilise the vote.
"We don't want Scaf [Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the ruling group of generals] to postpone elections," said Mohammed Ramadan, 28, a prominent activist and filmmaker in Tahrir.
"But what is important is that the new salvation government represents everyone - leftists, liberals, Salafis, the military - and that it is made-up of revolutionaries," Mr Ramadan said.
There were unconfirmed reports circulated that Scaf had offered former International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) head, Mohamed El Baradei, the position of prime minister in the new government.
The previous cabinet had largely been subordinate to Scaf, critics charged.
Its legitimacy was challenged when it announced on November 2 a list of "supra-constitutional" guidelines that would protect the military's privilege status and dwarf the powers of an elected parliament.
While politicians now say those guidelines have been scrapped, it was opposition to the document that spawned a massive demonstration against military rule - but dominated by Islamists - on Friday.
That protest morphed into a nightlong sit-in of several hundred protesters that was attacked by riot police with batons and tear gas on Saturday morning.
The violent charge by security forces inflamed demonstrators and provoked thousands of others to stream in and lead an assault on police forces near Tahrir that is now in its fourth day.
Hundreds of some of the more hardcore youth held the front line against army and police on a key boulevard running from Tahrir to the Ministry of Interior, while thousands filled the square chanting for freedom, camping out, and setting up field clinics to treat the thousands of injured.
Many protesters said they were moved by the images of riot and military police beating protesters and dragging the dead and unconscious across the square.
"I came out to Tahrir on the second day, because the ministry of interior was acting like a butcher," said 41-year-old Adl, an engineer. He refused to give his last name because he was coordinating the transport of medical supplies into the square, he said.
Even shop-owners surrounding Tahrir, some of whom have had their stores damaged by the unrest, were supportive of the demonstrations.
"It is not the police's right to kill the protesters, and the protesters should fight back," said Mahmoud Ramadan, a kiosk owner whose stall was damaged when protesters fled the military police on Sunday.
"My shop was damaged, but it does not make me angry," he said. "It was worth it, for freedom."
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Reuters