Cairo – A day after the cabinet offered its resignation to Egypt’s transitional military government, protesters demanding an end to army rule fought street battles with the police for a fourth straight day, braving an increasingly lethal crackdown recalling the earliest days of the Arab Spring.
With the clashes unfolding nearby, tens of thousands of people converged on Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egyptian resistance — first to the former president, Hosni Mubarak, ousted in February and now to the military commanders who replaced him.
Such was the nervousness about the test of wills that trading was briefly suspended on the Cairo stock exchange after its main index slumped for a third successive day, deepening the sense of crisis that has built since street fighting began on Saturday — just days ahead of the first parliamentary elections next week since Mr. Mubarak was forced from power.
Intense skirmishing continued for a fourth day on the main avenue leading to the Interior Ministry. For the protesters, the outburst still seemed to represent a leaderless expression of rage.
Though the security forces could have reached the square from other streets and the protesters could have attacked the Interior Ministry from other directions as well, each side continued to hammer the other — protesters with rocks, the security forces with tear gas that wafted back through the square — along the same charred and pockmarked block.
Many of the protesters wore green face masks, of the type used by medics, to try to filter tear gas fired by security forces in the ebb and flow of the fighting along streets littered with debris. Both sides sought to reinforce makeshift barricades.
A reporter for Al Jazeera held up a spent tear gas canister to a camera and said the country of its manufacture was printed on it as the United States. But the words were not easily legible to viewers.
By midday, the crowd in Tahrir Square had swelled to many tens of thousands — a far larger number than at the same time on previous days since the latest confrontation began on Saturday.
A new banner across the center of the square declared, “This land is owned by the Egyptian people.” Tents and a field clinic to treat injured protesters were being set up nearby.
Citing anonymous sources, state news organizations reported that the ruling military council had decided to accept the resignation of the interim civilian cabinet, and other news reports indicated that the military council was meeting with political leaders and potential candidates to serve as a new prime minister.
But in the current political climate — the heavy-handedness of the police has galvanized anger at what protesters see as the military council’s increasingly open play for long-term political power — it is unclear if any credible leader would take the job if it remained subordinate to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
“No one is going to accept another civilian government micromanaged” by the military commanders, said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Referring to the Supreme Council by its initials, Islam Lotfy, a onetime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood youth movement, said :“The people will not be happy if the SCAF just give them some pain killers.” Mr. Lotfy was among the instigators of the revolution; he was later expelled from the Brotherhood for starting a more centrist breakaway political party with other young Brothers.
“It may be the solution will be the SCAF delegating responsibilities to a new cabinet with full authority to manage the country,” he said.
The fighting came as criticism of the military spread beyond Egypt’s borders. In a statement, Amnesty International said the ruling commanders had “been responsible for a catalog of abuses which in some cases exceeds the record of Hosni Mubarak.”
The military had been seen as the linchpin of the political transition after the enforced departure of Mr. Mubarak.
It was the institution Islamists hoped would steer the country to early elections that they were poised to dominate. Liberals regarded it as a hedge against Islamist power. And the Obama administration considered it a partner that it hoped would help secure American interests.
But the cabinet’s offer to resign, in a bow to the protesters’ demands, was the latest blow to the tenuous legitimacy of the ruling military council.
Reeling from the swift collapse of the military’s authority, the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist group, urged protesters to show restraint or risk delaying the elections.
Many activists, though, were talking about renewed signed of divisions inside the Muslim Brotherhood.
Reopening a split that emerged at the start of the revolution in January, many of the younger members of the group were said to be coming to the square in defiance of their elders’ orders to stay home in order to avoid upsetting the elections.
“Just like in January, I think the older leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood will eventually follow as well,” said Mr. Bahgat of the Personal Rights Initiative.
Referring to the same quandary, Mr. Lotfy, the one time leader of the Brotherhood youth. said young Brotherhood followers “will have to take our own decision between what the organization wants and what our conscience tells us to do.”
But other Islamists, some more conservative and others more moderate, joined secular parties in calling for a protest Tuesday — expected to be the largest yet — demanding that the military hand power to a civilian authority.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did not respond to the cabinet’s offer to resign, but state television reported that the council was seeking a new prime minister. The culture minister, Emad Abu Ghazi, has already resigned in protest over the demonstrators’ brutal treatment at the hands of security forces.
In the report by Amnesty International, drawn up before the paroxysm of violence began in Cairo and other cities on Saturday, Philip Luther, an Amnesty official, said military rulers had “continued the tradition of repressive rule” which the anti-Mubarak protests had sought to end.
“Those who have challenged or criticized the military council — like demonstrators, journalists, bloggers, striking workers — have been ruthlessly suppressed, in an attempt at silencing their voices,” he said. Mr. Luther said the human rights “balance sheet” of the military rulers showed that “the aims and aspirations” of the anti-Mubarak protests had been crushed.
“The brutal and heavy-handed response to protests in the last few days bears all the hallmarks of the Mubarak era,” he said.
Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, called the violence “deplorable” and urged that elections take place on schedule.
The escalating uncertainty came after a bloody third day of battles between the protesters who have reoccupied Tahrir Square at the center of the capital and the security forces massed around the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. The Health Ministry said at least 23 people had died, and several doctors treating patients at a field clinic and nearby hospital said several had been killed by live ammunition, contrary to denials by the Interior Ministry. More than 1,500 people have been seriously injured in the clashes, the Health Ministry said. Two more people died in protest at Ismailiyah on the Suez Canal, news reports said.
But the crowd in Tahrir Square — the heart of the Arab Spring — continued to grow to tens of thousands on Monday. Alarmed at the crackdown on unarmed civilians, a broad cross section of the political elite, from liberal groups to ultraconservative Islamists, pledged for the first time to join the demonstrators on Tuesday in a so-called million man march.
After a meeting on Monday of about two dozen political groups, several delivered a collective apology to the protesters for not joining them sooner and “for not providing them with a political cover for the past 72 hours,” as the liberal political leader Amr Hamzawy put it in a message on Twitter.
But though all the political leaders called for elections to begin on schedule next week, a growing number acknowledged privately that the violence was likely to force their delay — potentially adding to the unrest. And even as the political leaders unified around the demands, new divisions emerged among them over how the military might begin to hand over power.
The Muslim Brotherhood was the only major political group that announced it would hold back from Tuesday’s demonstrations. It said in a statement that it did not want to be involved in a protest that might delay the elections and thus the transition to democracy.
In a statement on the Web site of the group’s Freedom and Justice Party, one of its leaders, Mohamed Beltagy, told protesters that “in spite of my complete appreciation of the reasons for their rage,” they should “not be involved in an escalation that could lead to a case of chaos and damage” or “give a chance to those who seek to justify delaying a complete transition of power to an elected civilian power with full authority (parliament, government and president) so that we can continue on the path of our glorious revolution.”
Some liberal groups, led by the former diplomat and presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, called for the military council to give up power immediately to a civilian “government of national rescue.” Other liberals said they sought only the replacement of the current cabinet with a new civilian team with more power to make decisions independently of the council.
Mr. Hamzawy, the founder of a new liberal party and a parliamentary candidate well positioned for a seat from an upscale district of Cairo, said in another Twitter message that he still favored holding elections before picking a new national unity government that would continue to govern under the military council, but called for replacing the current prime minister, Essam Sharaf.
“I’m still convinced that elections are the way to transfer power and I changed my position along with others to demand Sharaf’s dismissal after yesterday’s statement,” he said.
In a statement late Monday night the council called for a meeting with political leaders as well as an investigation into the violence by its interim justice minister.
As clashes continued Monday along the avenue to the Interior Ministry, protesters spread word that security forces appeared to be using more live ammunition in addition to the usual tear gas, rubber bullets and bird shot. At a hospital near the square, three doctors said they had seen as many as 10 patients with wounds from live bullets sustained at the protests, all of whom died.
All three doctors, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said administrators had told them to deny any evidence of bullet wounds.
Others worried about who might succeed the military council and its leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, even as they chanted for his ouster.
“People don’t want military rule, and they won’t leave here until the field marshal goes too,” said Omar Tareq, 18, a university student from the province of Qalyoubeya. “But I don’t really know what happens if he does. Who will take hold of the country?”
David D. Kirkpatrick reported from Cairo, and Alan Cowell from London. Liam Stack, Mayy el Sheikh and Dina Amer contributed reporting from Cairo.