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Tahrir Square: Expanding protests force concessions from Egypt's military

Egypt's de facto military ruler, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, promised presidential elections by July. But the masses in Tahrir Square vowed to stay put until he stepped down.

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Protesters chant anti-military council slogans at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Tuesday. Egypt's ruling generals promised presidential elections by July 1.

Asmaa Waguih/Reuters

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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.

"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 shot tear gas in the direction of protesters later in 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."

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