Cairo – The White House on Friday threw its weight behind Egypt’s resurgent protest movement, urging for the first time the handover of power by the interim military rulers in the Obama administration’s most public effort yet to steer the course of the Egyptian democracy.
“The United States strongly believes that the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately,” the White House said in a statement.
“Most importantly, we believe that the 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.”
The White House released the statement as tens of thousands of demonstrators poured into Tahrir Square for what is expected to be the biggest display of anger in a week of protests against the military’s intention to retain power even after parliamentary elections that are scheduled to begin on Monday.
The statement is a significant escalation of the international pressure on the generals because the United States is among the Egyptian military’s closest allies and biggest benefactors, contributing more than $1.3 billion a year in aid.
But speaking out against the military could be a risky bet for White House if the transition to democracy moves out of the hands of the military to less predictable civilian control.
The military is the most powerful institution in Egypt and a key supporter of the United States in a country where anti-American sentiment and Islamist political movements are surging.
Since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has held itself up as the sole guardian of Egypt’s stability against chaos and radicalism.
Until recently the United States had publicly endorsed its plans to guide a slow transition to civilian democracy in 2013 or later.
But the military council began spelling out plans to carve out permanent political powers and protection from civilian oversight under the next constitution. Those efforts exploded after the government used force to clear a small protest camp from Tahrir Square last Saturday, amid mounting unrest across the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton first referred obliquely to United States’ displeasure with the military’s power grab about two weeks ago.
Since then, the military escalated its tactics in confrontations that killed at least 38 civilians and injured more than 2,000.
As huge crowds of demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square on Friday, state television reported that the generals had appointed a politician from the Mubarak era head a new cabinet, potentially hardening the lines between the interim military rulers and protesters demanding their exit.
At the same time, the Obama administration urged the generals to transfer power immediately to a civilian government “empowered with real authority.”
The developments reinforced fears of a prolonged standoff after the generals vowed on Thursday to forge ahead with parliamentary elections despite a week of violence that is certain to tarnish the vote.
With a broad spectrum of civilian leaders — excluding the Muslim Brotherhood — joining calls for a “million man march,” large crowds of protesters began to assemble in Tahrir Square as Friday prayer began across the capital, responding to protesters’ appeals for a substantial display of support.
Late Thursday, the generals announced over the state news media that they planned to name a 77-year-old former Mubarak lieutenant, Kamel el-Ganzoury, as the new prime minister, though many Egyptians mocked him as “a dinosaur.”
The appointment of Mr. Ganzoury follows the resignation this week of the previous cabinet in capitulation to protesters’ demands. The last prime minister was a bureaucrat seen as serving the military council. Demonstrators, as well as most civilian parties, are now calling for the council to hand over real authority to a legitimate successor.
Despite those calls, state television reported Friday that Mr. Ganzoury had been appointed.
The political shifts have heightened the sense of turmoil in advance of Monday’s planned parliamentary vote.
Government news organizations reported on Thursday that at least one political party — the Social Democrats, perhaps the best established of the liberal parties founded in the burst of hope after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak nine months ago — would boycott the elections as a sham intended to prop up military rule.
By day’s end on Thursday, the Muslim Brotherhood also appeared to distance itself from the military council. The powerful Islamist group stands to gain the most from early elections and for the moment had stepped to the sidelines of the protests.
As clashes with the security police stopped for the first time this week, the crowd in Tahrir Square grew larger on Thursday than the day before, reaching tens of thousands.
The generals were unmoved. “Egypt is not Tahrir Square,” Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah, a member of the military council, declared early Thursday at a news conference. The generals claimed an open-ended mandate to hold power long after Monday’s parliamentary vote. “We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd.”
The declaration, after six days of violent confrontation in the capital and around the country, shifted the political struggle to a new and murkier phase.
Fulfilling a promise made in negotiations with political parties earlier in the week, the military pulled back the security forces who had battled protesters and constructed a concrete wall bisecting the street where most of the clashes had taken place.
The generals, meanwhile, issued an unusual apology for the deaths of at least 38 people during the week of unrest and the injuries of more than 2,000. But even as they hailed the dead as “martyrs,” the generals also appeared to justify killing them as criminals who had attacked the Interior Ministry. And they denied — despite the statements of many witnesses, doctors and even the health ministry — that security forces had fired live ammunition or birdshot in their clashes with protesters, further inflaming anger.
“The police are very committed to self-control, but I can’t give orders to anyone not to defend themselves,” General Mallah said.
But the council made clear in its news conference on Thursday that it was not ready to surrender any power, and the choice of Mr. Ganzoury appeared to show the generals’ preference for a prime minister who would serve in a subordinate role, as Mr. Ganzoury did under Mr. Mubarak.
Mayy el Sheikh and Dina Salah Amer contributed reporting from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from Paris.