Egyptian generals cling on – but crowds and bloodshed grow

Protesters refuse to leave streets despite Military Council's offer to bring forward elections

Cairo

Rioting gripped the streets of Cairo for a fourth consecutive evening last night – despite a pledge from the ruling Military Council to hand over power by July next year.

Protesters aimed fireworks at lines of police officers in the centre of the capital and the choking stench of tear gas drifted for well over a mile outside Tahrir Square as heavy clashes continued into the night.

The violence came after politicians who met the Military Council for crisis talks said Egypt's interim military leaders had agreed to set a date for presidential elections – one of the key demands of activists. There was even an offer of a referendum on the immediate transfer of power to civilian rule.

The military's offer followed scenes reminiscent of the protests that eventually toppled the former regime, as tens of thousands of Egyptians flocked to downtown Cairo to demand a handover to civilian rule before the 2013 date already offered by the military rulers.

"We agreed July as the month to transfer power to a civilian president," said Emad Abdel Ghafour, leader of the fundamentalist Islamic Al-Nour Party, who was at the cross-party meeting. He added that a new head of state would be sworn in after the June presidential election.

Egypt's generals also accepted yesterday's resignation of Prime Minster Essam Sharaf and his government, according to politicians present at the talks, paving the way for a "national salvation" interim government. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the de facto head of state, later confirmed the military's plan to leave as an enormous crowd gathered in Tahrir Square on a day they had earlier called the "march of the million". In a further boon to protests, he met another demand – to stop the practice of using military courts to try civilians.

But Field Marshal Tantawi blamed hidden forces for driving a wedge between the people and the military. The crowds were still in Tahrir Square to hear the address. "We are not leaving, he leaves," the protesters chanted.

Mohammad Mabrouk, a 43-year-old telecoms company worker, said: "Tantawi's speech was just like the way Hosni Mubarak tried to divide the people. It's making it easy to remind people that the military is doing everything the same way as Mubarak."

Two of Egypt's main political youth coalitions have now called on the military to hand over power immediately to a civilian interim government.

The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – which has not endorsed the most recent Tahrir Square demonstrations – released a statement simply saying it would be "watching with interest" to see whether Egypt's generals would make good on their word.

Yesterday's rally followed four days of rioting across the country. At least 33 people have been killed during the clashes.

There had been fears that with elections just days away, the much-touted "second revolution" demanded by some activists would have scuppered the nation's first democratic poll.

The Independent confirmed that several protesters killed during rioting were shot dead by live fire – despite official denials that live rounds were used against protesters. The general director of Cairo University Hospital said that doctors had retrieved bullets that were fired at demonstrators. Sherif Nasah said there was "no doubt" a number of the deaths were caused by live rounds. A plastic surgeon from the hospital, who did not want to be named, also confirmed that live rounds had been used.

Three American students were arrested for allegedly throwing Molotov cocktails at police lines during the rioting. Luke Gates, Greg Porter and Derrick Sweeney were shown being paraded on camera yesterday during a news item on state television that claimed they had been arrested while throwing "incendiary devices" at police near the Interior Ministry.

Hero turned villain: The man in charge

Given the degree of animosity that has been directed at Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi over the past four days, it is easy to lose sight of just how popular he and his army were in the first flushes of revolutionary Egypt. When he visited troops stationed in Tahrir Square on 4 February, it appeared to emphasise his solidarity with the demonstrators. What a difference nine months can make.

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Portia Walker

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