Cairo - After three days of increasingly violent demonstrations, Egypt’s interim civilian government submitted its resignation to the country’s ruling military council on Monday, bowing to the demands of the protesters and marking a crisis of legitimacy for the military-led government.
The step was reported by Egyptian state television, and it remained to seen whether the military would accept or reject the offer of the resignation, which followed the most sustained and bloodiest challenge to military’s hold on power since the fall of Hosni Mubarak as demonstrators clashed with security forces around Tahrir Square and across the country.
Egyptian troops had been heralded as saviors when their generals ushered out President Mubarak on Feb. 11, but on Sunday they led a new push to clear the square. The Health Ministry said Monday that at least 23 people had been killed. Since Saturday, more than 1,500 people had been wounded, the ministry said.
By Monday evening the crowd in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the Arab Spring uprisings, had swelled to a size even larger than the night before, easily exceeding 10,000. Older professionals and young women again mingled in the background while the predominantly young and male crowd continued to battle security forces guarding the Ministry of Interior or pushing forward toward the square. But people in the square reported a coarser atmosphere than on previous days, with more harassment of women or foreigners. At dusk young men in the center of the square were seen preparing what appeared to be Molotov cocktails for use against security forces in the long night ahead.
On Monday morning, the thoroughfares of downtown Cairo were littered with stones and other debris from the fighting, and witnesses said they had seen the bodies of three protesters wrapped in blankets carried away after they had been hit with live ammunition overnight. An apartment building near Tahrir Square was damaged by a fire sparked when a tear gas canister landed on a third-floor balcony, protesters said.
A representative of the ruling military council, Gen. Said Abbas, visited Tahrir Square on Monday and spoke in a brief news conference, saying the council respected the protesters’ right to peaceful demonstrations. He declared that the security forces had not initiated any violence but only defended themselves, and he insisted — despite a sweep of the square Sunday evening by hundreds of soldiers and police in riot gear — that the security forces had not entered the square.
Asked about the reports of protesters injured by gunfire from security forces, he said the victims were “thugs,” not peaceful demonstrators. The representative told the crowd to consider the economic cost of shutting the central square to traffic and disrupting city life, reminding them of losses this week in the Egyptian stock market.
“There is an invisible hand in the square causing a rift between the army and the people,” he said.
The violence has seemed to reinforce the revolutionary urgency that had returned to the square, and when the army moved to push out the thousands of protesters on Sunday, more than twice as many quickly flooded back.
“This is February 12!” said Abeer Mustafa, a 42-year-old wedding planner, referring to the day after President Mubarak resigned. “We have finally succeeded in reclaiming our revolution.”
The crackdown, including the reported use of live ammunition by troops, elicited condemnation across the political spectrum, joined by voices who had previously taken a more restrained tone toward the military council, from the liberal former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Almost all the civilian parties called for an accelerated end to military rule before drafting a constitution — either an immediate handover to some civilian unity government, a turnover to the lower house of Parliament when it is seated in April, or after a presidential election, to be scheduled as soon as possible.
But while unity reappeared in the square, where Coptic Christians once again stood guard as their Muslim compatriots bowed to pray, the political class remained deeply polarized over what sort of civilian government might succeed the military. Liberals and Islamists continued to battle each other in back-room arguments over the question of what rules the military might set for the selection of a constitutional convention, even as the street protesters demanded that the military give up such authority.
In its first official response to the crisis, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces repeated its commitment to its “road map” for the transition, including next week’s elections, but it did nothing to move up or clarify its exit date, now set for some time after drafting a constitution and electing a president in perhaps 2013 or beyond. The council expressed “sorrow” over the situation. It said it had ordered an investigation and it asked the political parties to “contain the situation.”
The protests were an eruption of anger that started with a peaceful march by tens of thousands of Islamists on Friday. When security forces tried to clear a small tent city that remained in the square on Saturday, a far more diverse cross section of young people and professionals turned out in support, battling the police in a war of rocks and tear gas. By Sunday, the clashes had spread to at least seven other cities, including the major population centers of Alexandria and Suez.
A makeshift field clinic that protesters had set up in a mosque near Tahrir Square treated a steady stream of hundreds of bloody patients on Sunday, registering at least one death, and doctors said they treated some wounded by live ammunition instead of the rubber bullets and birdshot that the security forces primarily used. After dark, a corpse was paraded on a stretcher through the square as battles continued around the periphery. More than 1,000 people were reported seriously injured over the past two days.
“This is the breaking point we were all waiting for,” said Tarek Salama, a surgeon working in the field hospital. “Getting rid of Mubarak was just the warm-up. This is the real showdown.”
With parliamentary elections set to begin in just a week, television commentators were raising alarms even before the clashes erupted that the military and security forces were not equipped to secure the polls, and many protestors said they feared that the military encouraged the strife as a pretext for postponing the election of a more legitimate body.
But a delay would be sure to set off an even bigger insurrection. The Muslim Brotherhood warned in a statement on Sunday that “we, along with our well-informed people, will not allow the cancellation or delay in the elections no matter what the price is.”
For now the military-led government’s attempt to beat back or squash the demonstrations only invigorates them. After trying to hold off a day of continuous attacks on the headquarters of the Interior Ministry, hundreds of soldiers and security police in riot gear stormed the square from several directions at once about 5 p.m., throwing rocks and raining down tear gas as they drove thousands of demonstrators out before them.
After less than half an hour they had retreated, having succeeded only in burning down a few tents in the square. And after another half an hour, the crowd of protesters had more than doubled, packing the square as ever more demonstrators marched in from all directions, chanting for the end of military rule and the ouster of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF. “Say it and don’t be scared: SCAF has to go!” they declared.
“There are no parties here,” one young man said to his friend, watching as fighting flared on a side street. “No Muslims and no Christians.”
“We are the people, and we have to rule ourselves,” another young man said. “Whoever likes it stays, and who doesn’t goes.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which helped lead the Islamist rally, issued a statement declaring the ruling military council responsible for allowing excessive violence against unarmed protesters, and it called for prosecution “of all those who commanded this attack.”
But it also issued a pointed challenge to “politicians and intellectuals,” presumably referring to Egyptian liberals. Many have urged the adoption of some sort of ground rules protecting Western-style civil liberties before a potential Islamist majority of the Parliament might dominate the constitutional convention. The military acted on those suggestions to present the liberals with a kind of devil’s bargain: a declaration that would have protected individual and minority rights, but also granted the military permanent political powers and immunity from scrutiny as the guardian of “constitutional legitimacy.”
“Will you respect the will of the people or will you turn against it?” the brotherhood statement read, in a direct challenge to the liberals. “Your credibility is now on the line, and we hope that you will not turn against it.”
Some of Egypt’s liberals, meanwhile, said they were prepared to accept the latest revisions of the military’s ground rules, which pared back the military’s special powers and immunities. But it also would impose a requirement that a two-thirds majority of the new Parliament approve the 100 members of a new constitutional committee, potentially limiting the power of an Islamist majority. The brotherhood, in turn, objected to that provision as unworkable.
Most liberals or secular leaders remain divided into many competing parties and factions. For his part, Mr. ElBaradei, the Nobel-prize winning diplomat and Egyptian presidential contender who remains the best known liberal leader here, argued in a television interview on Sunday night for a new government of “national unity” that would include representatives of liberals, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis.
Citing the civilian deaths, Mr. ElBaradei called the government statements “disgraceful.”
“It would have been more honorable for the cabinet to say the state has failed and to leave for others to manage the country,” he said, arguing that neither the military-led cabinet nor the generals themselves were qualified. “This is not a crisis,” he said. “The country is falling apart.”