Egypt generals promise civilian rule

Tue Nov 22, 2011 6:01pm EST
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By Marwa Awad and Tom Perry

CAIRO (Reuters) - Under fierce pressure from street protests in which 36 people have been killed, Egypt's army chief promised to hand over to a civilian president by July and made a conditional offer for an immediate end to army rule.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the military council that has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's overthrow on February 11, told the nation the army did not seek or want power.

"The army is ready to go back to barracks immediately if the people wish that through a popular referendum, if need be," the 76-year-old said in a surprising segment of a televised speech on Tuesday.

But demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square, braving clouds of tear gas, derided the offer, calling the referendum a stalling tactic and chanting "Leave, leave." After midnight, people were still joining the thousands occupying the area.

Looking far from confident, Tantawi said parliamentary polls would begin on time, starting this coming Monday, and that a presidential vote would take place in June, far sooner than the military's previous plans that would have kept it in power until late 2012 or early 2013.

Tantawi, trying to defuse a surge of popular anger reminiscent of the movement that toppled Mubarak, also said the council had accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet, which would be replaced with a national salvation government to steer Egypt to civilian rule.

A military source said Tantawi's referendum offer would come into play "if the people reject the field marshal's speech," but did not explain how the popular mood would be assessed. Tantawi may calculate that most Egyptians, unsettled by dizzying change, do not share the young protesters' appetite for breaking from the army's familiar embrace just yet.

"He is trying to say that, despite all these people in Tahrir, they don't represent the public," said 32-year-old Rasha, one of dozens huddled around a radio in the nearby Cafe Riche, a venerable Cairo landmark. "He wants to pull the rug from under them and take it to a public referendum."   Continued...