Tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding an end to military rule converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square yesterday in what activists said would be the biggest day yet in a week of demonstrations in which 41 people have been killed.
The military officers who took over after people power toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 are themselves under fire from protesters, who accuse them of clinging to power, leading to street battles that look like a replay of February’s unrest.
The ruling army council has appointed former Egyptian prime minister Kamal Ganzouri, 78, who served under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999, to head a “national salvation” government. Former Egyptian prime minister Essam Sharaf’s Cabinet resigned this week amid the protests.
The US, long a bedrock supporter of Egypt’s military, called on the generals to step aside “as soon as possible” and give real power to a new Cabinet “immediately.”
The military rulers say they are working on a transition of power, including parliamentary elections set for Monday, which could be overshadowed if violence continues. Some protesters say the army cannot be trusted to hold a clean vote.
Speaking by telephone shortly after his appointment was announced, Ganzouri declined to reveal details of his new Cabinet.
“Everything will be outlined later,” he said.
After his appointment was confirmed, crowds in Tahrir chanted: “They brought a thief and appointed another thief,” referring to Sharaf and Ganzouri.
“Say without fear: The [army] council must leave,” they shouted.
Activists were seeking to bring 1 million people onto the streets of Cairo on what they dubbed “last-chance Friday.”
Thousands flooded into Tahrir Square for prayers, where Sheikh Mazhar Shahin told worshipers the protest would go on until Egypt had a new salvation government.
Protesters said they expected the crowd to continue to grow in the afternoon. Friday, the weekly Muslim prayer day, has traditionally been the biggest day of demonstrations in the “Arab Spring” protests sweeping the Middle East this year.
“We are all for the revolution and stand steadfast for the demands of the revolution. There is no conflict between us and the army,” the cleric said in an address over loudspeakers.
Until a truce calmed violence on Thursday, streets around Tahrir had become battle zones, as stone-throwing protesters fought police firing tear gas, pellets and rubber bullets.
A steady stream of men, women and children surged into Tahrir before Friday prayers. Some, like Atef Sayed, 45, with his wife and two daughters, were protesting for the first time.
“We’re here to back the idea that the military council hands responsibility to civilians and focuses on military affairs. Nine months have gone by with many things that have happened in a way opposite to what the revolutionaries wanted,” he said.
However, enthusiasm for the protests was not universal.
About 5,000 people waving Egyptian flags demonstrated in favor of the military rulers in Cairo’s Abbassiya district.
“The people want the emptying of the square,” the demonstrators shouted.