CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers rejected protester demands for them to step down immediately and said Thursday they would start the first round of parliamentary elections on time next week despite serious unrest in Cairo and other cities.
The ruling military council insisted it is not the same as the old regime it replaced, but the generals appear to be on much the same path that doomed Hosni Mubarak nine months ago — responding to the current crisis by delivering speeches seen as arrogant, mixing concessions with threats and using brutal force.
So far it's working no better than it did under the former leader.
Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, seething over the military's perceived failings over the past nine months, say they will not leave the iconic plaza until the generals step down in favor of a civilian presidential council, a show of resolve similar to that which forced Mubarak to give up power in February after nearly three decades.
"What we want to hear is when they are leaving," said Tahrir protester Khaled Mahmoud on hearing of an apology offered by the military for the deaths of nearly 40 protesters since Saturday. "The ouster of the marshal is only a matter of time," he added referring to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years before he succeeded him in February.
"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 on Thursday. "The election will be held on time with all of its three stages on schedule."
The two generals said the throngs in Tahrir do not represent the whole of Egypt and warned of chaos if the council was to immediately step down, language similar to Mubarak's scare-mongering while trying to cling to power in the face of the 18-day uprising against his rule.
The two generals — Shaheen and Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Malla — also said that parliamentary elections would start on time Monday and that a new prime minister to replace Essam Sharaf would be picked before the vote.
News reports that were not yet officially confirmed, said Kamal el-Ganzouri, who served as prime minister under Mubarak in the 1990s, has been approached by the military as a possible candidate for prime minister. State television showed footage of el-Ganzouri meeting with Tantawi. If confirmed, el-Ganzouri would replace Essam Sharaf whose government resigned this week.
Tahrir Square, meanwhile, was quieter Thursday after five days of intense clashes. Police and protesters agreed to a truce negotiated by Muslim clerics at the scene. At the same time, soldiers built barricades from metal bars and barbed wire to separate the protesters and the police on streets-turned-battlefields leading from Tahrir to the nearby Interior Ministry.
Protesters formed a series of human chains on the those streets to prevent anyone from violating the truce or approaching flashpoint areas close to the police lines. The truce came into force around 6 a.m. and was holding by nightfall.