Massive crowds demanding an end to military rule in Egypt converged on Cairo’s Tahrir square on Friday in what activists say will be the biggest day yet of protests in a week of violence that has seen at least 41 people killed.
The generals who have governed Egypt since people power-toppled President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 are facing a major challenge to their authority.
The grand imam of al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, on Friday expressed support for protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and wished them success, a senior aide said.
“The grand imam (Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyeb) backs you and is praying for your victory,” Hassan Shafie told the protesters during a visit to the square.
The cleric’s words of sympathy were unprecedented for the head of the prestigious al-Azhar who is appointed by Egyptian presidents and who rarely issues remarks that contradict the government’s position.
Earlier, the imam leading tens of thousands of worshippers in prayer at the square called on the ruling military to hand power to a national salvation government.
Sheikh Mazhar Shahin said protesters would remain in the square -- the symbolic heart of rallies that toppled Mubarak -- until their demands were met.
He called for the creation of a national salvation government to take over from the military council in charge of the country since Mubarak was toppled in February.
“There is no option but a national salvation government with the powers of a president.”
The charismatic Shahin, nicknamed the “preacher of the revolution” after leading prayers throughout the January-February revolt that ousted Mubarak, said the revolution should drive Egypt’s political future.
“The revolution is the one that thinks, the revolution is the one that decides, it is the one that judges,” Shahin said. “Our revolution was a body without a head. Today, the revolution will have a head.”
Activists who accuse the army of trying to cling to power have once again turned Tahrir into center of mass demonstrations, producing scenes similar to the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Since last Saturday, streets near Tahrir have become battle zones with stone-throwing protesters fought police firing tear gas, pellets and rubber bullets, although a truce on Thursday calmed the violence in the past 24 hours.
Activists sought to bring a million people into the streets of the capital on what they have dubbed “the Friday of the last chance”. The weekly Muslim prayer day has traditionally produced the biggest demonstrations of the Arab Spring revolts sweeping across the Middle East.
The ruling military council had appointed Kamal Ganzouri, who served as prime minister under Mubarak from 1996-99, to head an interim cabinet. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf’s government resigned this week.
The military rulers say they will transfer power to civilians, but the process should not be rushed to avoid chaos.
Washington, long a bedrock supporter of Egypt’s military, called on the generals on Friday to step aside “as soon as possible” and give real power to the new cabinet “immediately.”
“Full transfer of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, as soon as possible,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
“The United States strongly believes that the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately.”
Ahmed Mohey el-Din, 27, a dentist, who was among the crowds in Tahrir Square, said: “We came to voice our refusal of the military council’s manoeuvres and to stress our demands for handing power to a civilian presidential council and a national salvation government with full powers.”
Mohamed Abdel Kerim, a university student, said talk of appointing Ganzouri, 78, as prime minister was a tactic intended to divide protesters. “We don’t want anyone from the old regime and we want complete powers for the new government,” he said.
Informal debate among protesters about who should head the next cabinet threw up three “acceptable” names: left winger Hamdeen Sabahi, Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Futuh, or former U.N. nuclear watchdog head Mohamed ElBaradei, protesters said.
“There is consensus in Tahrir on the choice of Sabahi, Aboul Futuh and ElBaradei as the three most suitable politicians and technocrats to form a government,” said one protester, Amr Salah. “There is considerable rejection of Ganzouri in Tahrir.”
Activists set up checkpoints at entrances to the square, searching people arriving and checking identity cards.
“We’ve had enough of government controlled by the military,” read a huge banner tied between two lamp posts. Several hundred young men marched around waving Egyptian flags and chanting “Down, down with military rule” and “Down, down with the field marshal”, a reference to army chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
Frustration with army
The army, once hailed for its role in easing Mubarak from power, has come under increasing fire for dragging out a handover to civilian rule, even as Egypt’s economy falters.
This week it promised to accelerate the timetable for a transfer of power to a civilian president and again pledged that parliamentary elections will start on Monday, as planned.
The United States and European nations, alarmed at the violence of the past few days, have urged Egypt to proceed with what has been billed as its first free vote in decades.
The army and the Muslim Brotherhood, which expects to do well in the election, say it must go ahead, but many protesters do not trust the military to oversee a clean vote. Some scorn the Brotherhood for its focus on gaining seats in parliament.
The group organized a protest last Friday against army efforts to shape a new constitution, but left Tahrir as protests widened. It held a separate rally this Friday at al-Azhar mosque for the “liberation” of Jerusalem from Israeli control.
The Health Ministry said 41 people had died in the violence, state television reported. More than 2,000 people were also wounded in the unrest in Cairo and several other cities.
The army council said on Thursday it was trying to prevent more bloodshed. In an unusual apology, it offered compensation to families of the dead and a swift enquiry into the unrest.
The latest upheaval makes it even harder to dig the economy out of a crisis whose first victims are the millions of poor Egyptians whose frustration spurred the revolt against Mubarak.
Egypt’s central bank unexpectedly raised interest rates on Thursday for the first time in more than two years, after depleting its foreign reserves trying to defend a local currency weakened by the political chaos.
In fresh blows to confidence, the Egyptian pound weakened to more than six to the dollar for the first time since January 2005, and Standard & Poor’s cut Egypt’s credit rating.
The economic woes may argue in favor of Ganzouri, whose government virtually balanced the budget, cut inflation, held the exchange rate stable and maintained healthy foreign currency reserves during his time in office from 1996 to 1999.
He introduced some economic liberalisation measures and many Egyptians viewed him as an official who was not tainted by corruption. But his record serving under Mubarak could stir opposition from those demanding a clean break with the past.
Some Facebook activists derided the choice of a Mubarak-era man to steer the country into a new era, listing four ancient pharaohs as useful alternatives if Ganzouri turns the job down.
“Tutankhamun is more suitable because he is from the youth,” one said, referring to the boy king of ancient Egypt.