CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers said Thursday that parliamentary elections will start on schedule next week despite escalating unrest and they rejected protesters' calls for them to immediately step down.
Resigning now would amount to a "betrayal" of the people's trust after the military took over from ousted president Hosni Mubarak by popular demand, the ruling generals said.
"There will be no postponement in the election," said Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, one of two members of the ruling military council who spoke at a televised news conference. "The election will be held on time with all of its three stages on schedule."
The comments suggested that the council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, has no intention of making more concessions under pressure from tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak nine months ago.
The second council member, Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah, said stepping down immediately would be a "betrayal of the trust placed in our hands by the people." He said the throngs in Tahrir do not represent the whole of Egypt.
"We will not relinquish power because a slogan-chanting crowd said so. ... Being in power is not a blessing. It is a curse. It's a very heavy responsibility."
Earlier in the day, the military apologized for the deaths of dozens of pro-democracy protesters since Saturday and vowed to prosecute those responsible, its latest attempt to appease the protesters.
Tahrir Square was quieter Thursday after five days of intense clashes. Police and protesters agreed to a truce negotiated by Muslim clerics after the clashes that have left nearly 40 dead and more than 2,000 injured. The truce came into force around 6 a.m. and was holding by sunset, when thousands streamed into the square to join protesters there.
Thousands chanted "we are not leaving, he leaves," referring to Tantawi. Others chanted: "Go away marshal, Egypt will not be ruled by a field marshal."
The military's handling of the transitional period has been intensely criticized by rights groups and activists, who suspect the generals want to keep power even after a new parliament is seated and a new president is elected.
The fighting around Cairo's central Tahrir Square has been the longest spate of uninterrupted violence since the uprising that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11. It has deepened the country's economic and security troubles ahead of the first parliamentary elections since Mubarak's regime was toppled. Voting is scheduled to begin on Monday and will be staggered over a three-month period.
The military's apology left many of the protesters unmoved.
"What we want to hear is when they're leaving," said Khaled Mahmoud, a protester who had a bandage on his nose after being hit by a tear gas canister.
The streets around Tahrir Square where the battles took place were almost entirely covered by debris, soot, abandoned shoes and scores of the surgical masks used by the protesters to fend off the police's tear gas.
"The army is like the police: A tool of suppression," said Mayada Khalaf, a female protester. "Where was the army when the shooting was going on?"
The military statement came two days after Tantawi promised in a televised address to more forward the timetable for handing over power to a civilian authority. He said Egypt will hold a presidential election in the first half of next year, sooner than had been expected, but did not offer an apology for the killings.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as the military's ruling body is known, promised to do everything possible to stop bloodshed.
At the same time, soldiers built barricades from metal bars and barbed wire to separate the protesters and the police on side streets leading from Tahrir to the nearby Interior Ministry. Most of the fighting took place on those streets.
Protesters formed a series of human chains on the side streets to prevent anybody from violating the truce or approaching flashpoint areas close to the police lines.
"If any of you hurl a single rock, we will beat you to death," a young man warned, addressing angry youths itching to resume fighting. Others pleaded for calm, chanting "peaceful, peaceful."
The Health Ministry raised its nationwide death toll since Saturday to 37, while the Elnadeem Center, an Egyptian rights group known for its careful research of victims of police violence, has said 38 were killed.
The clashes also have left more than 2,000 protesters wounded, mostly from gas inhalation or injuries caused by rubber bullets fired by security forces. The military insists the police only used tear gas and asked prosecutors to investigate the possible use of live ammunition by unknown parties.