As Egypt protests neared a critical mass today, Egypt's de facto military leader agreed to hand over power to civilians much sooner than they had planned.
After at least 100,000 Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square today following a fourth straight day of violence, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi addressed the nation on state TV in a bid to quell the crisis. He vowed that the ruling military council would hold presidential elections by July 1, 2012 – and possibly hand power to a civilian government sooner, if a public referendum demanded it. The previous time-table announced by the military had presidential elections scheduled for some time in 2013.
But his promises did not appear to placate the crowds. "Down with Tantawi!" people shouted in response to the speech. "We won't leave! He must leave!" they shouted.
IN PICTURES: Tahrir Square clashes
"It's ridiculous," protester Mohamed Salah said of the speech. "It reminds me of the first speech of Mubarak [before he resigned]." It's like deja vu. People are not leaving the square. People are increasing. There is no fear anymore.... People are only getting angrier."
Protester Marwa Mohamed says the promise to hold presidential elections by July was a good step, but she adds that it is not enough and scoffed at the idea of holding a referendum. "This is our referendum," she says, pointing at the square.
After security forces attacked protesters with tear gas later into the night, the mood changed from cheer to panic, with many protesters running away from the square and others appearing much angrier than before. "The people want Tantawi to fall," they chanted, as tear gas still hung in the air.
Broadening range of Egyptians join protests
Today's massive turnout was a significant statement of the growing public opposition to the military across Egyptian society, bringing out not only activists but also Egyptians who until now had been content for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to run the country.
Many billed the renewed protests, which come less than a week before parliamentary elections are scheduled to begin, as a continuation of the revolution that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak in February – and protesters again insist that they will stay put until the leader in their sights steps down. Some even appear willing to risk their lives as security forces fire not only tear gas and rubber bullets on the protesters, but also birdshot and – according to field doctors – live ammunition.
SCAF appealed for an end to violence as clashes between protesters and security forces continued for the fourth straight day and the death toll rose to at least 29 nationwide – though by nightfall, the violence appeared to be easing slightly.
"They're accusing the protesters of not letting the situation calm down," says protester Jihan Hassan, a middle-aged woman who owns a travel agency. "But the truth is, the military hasn't protected the people for the past 10 months."
Ms. Hassan was one of a number of middle- to upper-class protesters who said that the security forces' use of violence against civilians, first against a mainly Coptic Christian protest Oct. 9 and then in Tahrir in recent days, turned them against the military. So long as SCAF condoned such tactics, the protests would persist, they vowed.
"Each time they kill more [protesters], more people will come to Tahrir," says Nouran Allam, a student. "They took power 10 months ago and it's only getting worse; nothing has changed."
A divided Brotherhood
Egypt's military has been a key force behind its leaders since a 1952 coup by military officers that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Army colonel, to power. Mubarak was commander of the Air Force before he became president.
Since the military took over from Mubarak in February, it has continued many of the former president’s repressive policies and has repeatedly delayed a timeline for transfer of power to civilian rule. Parliamentary elections are due to be held over two months beginning Nov. 28, but the military has said it will not give up power until a new president is elected.
The Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt's most organized opposition group, which belatedly joined the January uprising – has demanded the military withdraw security forces from the square and set a timeline for the transfer of power, with presidential elections no later than mid-2012. But it has also called for calm, not for protests, and for elections to proceed next week as planned.
The turnout in Tahrir Square today was particularly significant considering that the Brotherhood had urged its followers not to join the protest. In recent months, protests organized by the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups were the only gatherings able to draw significant numbers, and Egypt’s military had enjoyed high support.
The Brotherhood’s political party is poised to make a strong showing at the polls. But many of the Islamist movement's younger members have joined the protesters in the square, and the leadership’s refusal to join the growing momentum may lead to hard questions from members.
“They are not as radical as the moment requires,” says Ibrahim El Houdaiby, an analyst and former Brotherhood member. "The people on the street have come together. The political leadership has two choices: they can either come together and join the masses, or they can stand divided as they are and lose any credibility they have,” he says, referring not only to the Brotherhood but all of Egypt’s political leaders.
Protesters vow to stay put
Protests were also reported in Alexandria and other cities across Egypt. Few analysts see how the situation can end without major concessions by the military.
The protest has grown too large for security forces to violently expel it from Tahrir without major casualties, yet police continued to shoot tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters and they fought back with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Doctors at volunteer field hospitals say security forces have also shot live ammunition at protesters.
The violent attacks on civilians have poured fuel on the fire, turning what might have been a small protest into a massive challenge to the military's rule.
"Each day the military council stays in power, the people get more stubborn," says protester Christiane Gabriel, a student. "It's not their job to run the country. They didn't protect our revolution."
Abdullah Mohamed, another protester, is even more pointed in his criticism. "Where are the rights of our brothers who died in the square? They treat us like animals and then say this? I will not go home until he hands power to a civilian council."
IN PICTURES: Tahrir Square clashes