Protesters chant at Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Mohamed Omar, European…)
Reporting from Cairo — The head of Egypt's military council announced an accelerated timetable for handing power to an elected government, an effort to calm a protest movement charging that the army had itself become an oppressor since it helped push Hosni Mubarak from power early this year.
Dressed in pressed green fatigues and a cap, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi appeared stern and uncomfortable in a formal address to the nation Tuesday. In mood and message, Tantawi seemed to echo the perturbed old president, who neither understood nor possessed the moral authority to beat back the revolution that overthrew him in February.
Tantawi scolded protesters for insulting the military and spoke of sinister "unforeseen forces" trying to destroy the state.
"Running the country during the transitional period hasn't been as easy," said the 76-year-old Tantawi. He added that the military does not covet power: "The army is ready to go back to the barracks immediately if the people wish that through a popular referendum, if need be."
It remains to be seen whether the concessions will defuse what protesters are calling a "second revolution," in which at least 30 people have died since Saturday. But many among the crowd of more than 100,000 protesters in Tahrir Square booed the speech and were unimpressed by the man some had months ago respected.
"The speech was very disappointing," said Essam Abdel Latif, a lawyer. "It resembled the same old way of tackling problems as during Mubarak's days. Tantawi will remove one Cabinet and bring in another that will be his puppet. We need to see more actions. We wanted to see him apologize for those who are being killed."
Tantawi made two pledges: to appoint a new interim Cabinet and to relinquish power to a civilian government after a president is elected no later than July 1. The military council had planned to retain control until 2013, but the concessions were forced by deadly clashes between protesters and riot police, an economy in a tailspin and parliamentary elections scheduled for Monday.
The field marshal's address followed an emergency meeting with political and Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to win a major share of parliament. Many liberal and secular parties, who had called for the military to immediately step aside, opposed the concessions because they may strengthen the Islamists and still leave parliament answerable to the armed forces.
The political maneuverings of the day were crucial for Tantawi and the Brotherhood.
The field marshal had to hold the country together. The Brotherhood, repressed for three decades by Mubarak's police state, did not want to jeopardize a chance to control parliament by openly supporting protests that threatened to derail elections. That strategy angered demonstrators, who accused the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties of placing political ambitions ahead of the country's deeper interests.
"I'm against all the parties," said Sayed Mahmoud Ali, a protester and restaurant owner. "I'm leaving my work and family behind to be here, so what are politicians waiting for? It seems to me that politicians want to win the parliament and the presidency over the bodies of martyrs dying here in the square."
Maher Shehata, a barber, said: "We chucked out some politicians yesterday and we'll do it again. Those here are the real revolutionaries sacrificing for this country, not those political parties who want to come with their banners and propaganda."
As Ali and Shehata spoke, police fired tear gas at stone-throwing protesters surging through side streets out of the square toward the Interior Ministry. The clashes continued into the night as fires burned and gunfire rattled amid speeches, chants and caricatures comparing Tantawi to Mubarak.
Much of the anger, which has also ignited protests in Alexandria, Suez and other cities, stems from the frustration that the Egyptian revolution, the inspiration for uprisings across the region, has stalled. The military has expanded martial law; the political crisis triggered a temporary suspension of trading on a downward spiraling stock market; and international travel agencies have canceled tours.
"The Egyptian economy is notably deteriorating and every time things near stability, something happens to take us backward," said the field marshal.
How Tantawi and his fellow generals navigate the coming days and weeks will be crucial to the easing of Egypt away from violence. Since he helped persuade Mubarak to step down in February, however, Tantawi has struggled to adapt to the compromises and diplomacy of running a restive country instead of a well-disciplined military force.
A 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable described Mubarak and Tantawi, then the defense minister, as "aged and change-resistant," and focused on "maintaining their status quo through the end of their time. They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently."