Egypt’s army-appointed government handed in its resignation on Monday, trying to stem a spiralling crisis as thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square clashed for the third straight day with security forces in violence that has killed at least 24 people and posed the most sustained challenge yet to the rule of the military.
The crowds in Tahrir, which had grown to well over 10,000 after nightfall, broke out into cheers with the news of the Cabinet’s move, chanting “God is great.” But there was no sign the concession would break their determination to protest until the military steps down completely and hands over power to a civilian government.
Beating drums, the protesters quickly resumed their chants of “the people want the ouster of the field marshal,” a reference to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council of generals that has ruled the country since the Feb. 11 fall of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which Tantawi heads, did not immediately announce whether it would accept the mass resignation. Many Egyptians had seen the government, headed by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, as a mere facade for them military and either unable or unwilling to press ahead with democratic reform or take action to stem increasing turmoil and economic crisis around the country.
The anger, however, has ultimately been focused on the generals themselves, who many activists accuse of acting as abusively as Mubarak’s regime and of intending to maintain their grip on power.
The turmoil comes only a week before Egypt is to start key parliamentary elections, which many had hoped would be a landmark in the transition to a democracy. Instead, they have been overshadowed by the standoff over the military. Activists believe that no matter who wins the vote, the generals will dominate the next government as much as they did Sharaf’s. The military says it will hand over power only after presidential elections, which it has vaguely said will be held in late 2012 or early 2013.
If Monday’s resignations are carried out, a crucial question will be who will replace the Cabinet. Some in the square demand the military immediately hand over all its authority to a national unity government made up of multiple factions.
“We are not clearing the square until there is a national salvation government that is representative and has full responsibility,” said activist Rami Shaat.
Violence has steadily escalated the clashes began Saturday, when police tried to clear several hundred protesters in the square. Repeated attempts to clear the protesters from Tahrir have failed, and a death toll that quadrupled overnight from Sunday has only brought out more and angrier protesters. The protests have spread to other cities around the country, including the coastal city of Alexandria, where one of the deaths took place.
Throughout the day on Monday, black-garbed security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and many protesters said live ammunition at young men in the streets around Tahrir. The protesters hurled stones and threw back the gas canisters that clattered across the pavement, streaming stinging clouds.
Sounds of gunfire crackled around the square, and a constant stream of injured protesters bloodied from rubber bullets or overcome by gas were brought into makeshift clinics set out on sidewalks, where volunteer doctors scrambled from patient to patient.
During an overnight assault, police hit one of the field clinics with heavy barrages of tear gas, forcing the staff to flee, struggling to carry out the wounded. Some were moved to a nearby sidewalk outside a Hardees fast food restaurant. A video posted on social networking sites showed a soldier dragging the motionless body of a protester along the street and leaving him in a garbage-strewn section of Tahrir.
An Egyptian morgue official said the toll had climbed to 24 dead since the violence began Saturday a jump from the toll of five dead around nightfall Sunday, reflecting the ferocity of fighting through the night. The official spoke on condition of because he was not authorized to release the numbers. Hundreds have been injured, according to doctors in the square.