Egypt's underfire ruling generals finally bowed to the demands of protesters last night as the biggest rally since the February uprising forced them to promise a handover to civilian rule by July next year.
On the back of the worst violence since the last days of Hosni Mubarak, 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 announcement came after scenes reminiscent of the protests that 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 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, ending military rule.
Egypt's generals also accepted the resignation of Prime Minster Essam Sharaf and his government, paving the way for an interim government.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the de facto head of state who has been the focus of anti-military chants this week, 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 protesters, he met another demand — to stop the practice of using |military courts to try civilians.
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. “The people want to bring down the Field Marshal.”
It followed four days of rioting across the country. At least 33 people have been killed during the clashes, which began when police attacked protesters camped out in Tahrir Square on Saturday.
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.
Several protesters killed during rioting were shot by live fire — despite official denials that live rounds were not used.
Sherif Nash, director of Cairo University Hospital, where staff have treated hundreds of injured protesters, said doctors had retrieved bullets fired at demonstrators.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi was born in 1935 and served his military education in Russia during the 1950s. He fought during the 1956 Suez Crisis, when the wildly popular Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal.
He later served in the 1967 and 1973 wars against Israel. He was a close confidant of former president Hosni Mubarak, serving as defence minister from 1991 and commander of the armed forces four years later.