CAIRO — A swelling crowd of tens of thousands filled Cairo's Tahrir Square Tuesday, answering the call for a million people to turn out and intensify pressure on Egypt's military leaders to hand over power to a civilian government. The ruling military council held crisis talks with political parties across the spectrum to try to defuse growing cries for a "second revolution."
The military head of state, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was expected to address the nation as protests in Cairo and other major cities carried on for a fourth day. Security forces stayed out of Tahrir itself to lower the temperature. But there were clashes on side streets leading to the square — the epicenter of the uprising that ousted longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February.
The new wave of protests and violence around the country that began on Saturday has left 29 dead and has thrown Egypt's politics into chaos less than a week before landmark parliamentary elections were to begin.
"If the elections don't happen, there could be a clash between the army and the people. That's what we're afraid of," said protester Mustafa Abdel-Hamid. He said he wanted a clear timetable for the transfer of power.
"The army is making the same mistake as Mubarak. They hear the demands but respond when it's too late," said Abdel-Hamid, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to Tahrir even though his movement has not endorsed the protests over the past four days.
About 30,000 people were in Tahrir by late afternoon and the crowd was growing steadily — the numbers typically peak at night after everyone gets off work. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, with jubilation over the large turnout mixed with the seething anger directed at the military.
The crowds carried an open wooden coffin with a body of a slain protester wrapped in white and held a funeral in the middle of the square.
A stuffed military uniform was hung from a central light pole with a cardboard sign on its neck saying "Execute the field marshal," a reference to Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years. People cheered when the effigy was hung and state television showed some hitting it with sticks.
Men in the square opened a corridor in the middle of the crowds and formed a human chain to keep it open, giving easy access to motorcycles and ambulances ferrying the wounded to several field hospitals in the square.
Further confusing the political situation, the military-backed civilian government on Monday submitted a mass resignation in response to the turmoil.
In a sign it was struggling over how to respond to the fast-changing events, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces — the military body that rules the country — still had not responded to the resignation offer by Tuesday. The council's generals met Tuesday with leaders of all the various political factions, apparently trying to find a replacement government.
But the military has been backed into a difficult corner. Protesters are demanding it surrender the reins of power — or at least set a firm date in the very near future for doing so soon. Without that, few civilian political leaders are likely to join a new government for fear of being tainted as facades for the generals, as many consider the current Cabinet.
The office of leading pro-reform activist Mohamad ElBaradei said the Nobel Peace Laureate did not attend the crisis meeting but was in touch with the military. ElBaradei prefers to continue to act as the link between the military council and the protesters until the crisis is resolved, his office said.
ElBaradei's name has been mentioned by protesters as a suitable replacement for Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, who has come under intense criticism for the perceived inefficiency of his civilian government and for being beholden to the ruling generals.
Sharaf pleaded for calm to allow the elections to go ahead on schedule.
"Please calm things down. ... Egypt must come first and it is important that we protect it at this point," he told reporters. He declined to answer a question on whether the military accepted his Cabinet's resignation.
The political uncertainty and prospect of continued violence dealt a punishing blow to an already battered economy.
Egypt's benchmark index plunged more than 5 percent, the third straight day of declines. Banks closed early and many workplaces sent employees home ahead of schedule for fear of a deterioration in security.
Several main roads were closed to traffic, adding to Cairo's already congested streets.
Clashes between protesters and police and soldiers continued on streets leading to Tahrir and near the Interior Minister, which is in charge of police. The police fired tear gas and rubber bullets and the protesters responded with rocks and firebombs.
The army set up barricades on streets leading to Interior Ministry and soldiers stood behind them. Riot police were in front in lines, and youth approached and throw stones. They fired back with tear gas.
Three American students at the American University of Cairo, which sits on Tahrir Square, were arrested outside the university's campus Monday night, the AUC said.Comment on this story
University spokeswoman Rehab Saad told The Associated Press the three are on a study abroad program and the university is in touch with their families and the U.S. Embassy over the matter.
An Egyptian Interior Ministry official said the three were arrested while on the roof of one of the university's buildings throwing firebombs at security forces who were fighting protesters in Tahrir Square.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because there was no authorization to speak to the media.
State television showed brief footage of the three students, males who appeared to be in their early 20s.
Associated Press reporter Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Cairo.