CAIRO — Egypt’s military rulers picked a prime minister from ousted leader Hosni Mubarak’s era to head the next government in a move quickly rejected by tens of thousands of protesters, while the United States ratcheted up pressure on the generals to quickly transfer power to a civilian leadership.
More than 100,000 people packed into Cairo’s central Tahrir Square for their biggest demonstration since the current showdown began, with activists accusing the generals of trying to extend the old guard and demanding they step down immediately after failing to stabilize the country, salvage the economy or bring democracy following Mubarak’s ouster.
Tensions have risen ahead of parliamentary elections, set to begin on Monday. The election is to be staggered over multiple stages that end in March, and the military said Friday it would extend the voting period to two days for each round in an apparent effort to boost turnout due to the current unrest. The first stage covers nine provinces that include Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
Kamal el-Ganzouri, 78, served as prime minister between 1996 and 1999 and was deputy prime minister and planning minister before that. He also was a provincial governor under the late President Anwar Sadat.
In a televised statement, he said the military has given him greater powers than his predecessor and he wouldn’t have accepted the job if he believed military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi had any intention of staying in power.
“The powers given to me exceed any similar mandates,” he said, looking uncomfortable, grasping for words and repeatedly pausing as he spoke. “I will take full authority so I’m able to serve my country.”
He also said he won’t be able to form a government before parliamentary elections start on Monday.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, appeared to bring its position on the crisis in Egypt closer to the protesters’ demands, urging the generals to fully empower the next interim civilian government.
“We believe that Egypt’s transition to democracy must continue, with elections proceeding expeditiously, and all necessary measures taken to ensure security and prevent intimidation,” 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 stance is significant because the Egyptian military has over the past 30 years forged close relations with successive U.S. administrations, receiving $1.3 billion annually in aid.
El-Ganzouri’s appointment was announced by state TV following a meeting late Thursday between him and Tantawi. Tantawi was Mubarak’s defense minister of 20 years and served in el-Ganzouri’s earlier government.
It was the latest in a series of efforts by the military to appease protesters without meeting their main demand of stepping down immediately.
The generals also apologized Thursday for the killing of nearly 40 protesters in five days of deadly clashes, mostly centered on side streets near the square. This was the longest spate of uninterrupted violence since the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak on Feb. 11. The streets were relatively calm on Friday as a truce negotiated Thursday in Cairo continued to hold.
But the choice of el-Ganzouri only deepened the anger of the protesters, already seething over the military’s perceived reluctance to dismantle the legacy of Mubarak’s 29-year rule.
“Illegitimate, illegitimate!” the crowds in the downtown square chanted on hearing the news.
“Not only was he prime minister under Mubarak, but also part of the old regime for a total of 18 years,” said protester Mohammed el-Fayoumi, 29. “Why did we have a revolution then?”
El-Ganzouri replaces Essam Sharaf, who resigned this week after nearly nine months in office amid deadly clashes between police and protesters calling for the military to immediately step down. Sharaf was criticized for being weak and beholden to the generals.
The military has said parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak’s ouster, will be held on schedule despite the unrest in Cairo and a string of other cities to the north and south of the capital. Voting starts Monday and concludes in March, meaning that el-Ganzouri could be prime minister only until a new government is formed following the seating of a new legislature.
“El-Ganzouri is a new Sharaf. He’s old regime,” said Nayer Mustafa, 62. “The revolution was hijacked once. We won’t let it happen again.”
Friday’s protest in Tahrir was dubbed by organizers as “The Last Chance Million-Man Protest.” Swelling crowds chanted, “leave, leave” and “the people want to bring down the field marshal” , in reference to Tantawi, who took over the reins of power from Mubarak.
Pro-reform leader and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei was mobbed by hundreds of supporters as he arrived in the square and took part in Friday prayers, leaving shortly afterward.
“He is here to support the revolutionaries,” said protester Ahmed Awad, 35. “He came to see for himself the tragedy caused by the military.”
The demonstrators have vowed not to leave the sprawling plaza until the generals step down in favor of a civilian presidential council. Their show of resolve resembles that of the rallies which forced Mubarak to give up power.
Fireworks lit the sky in the evening and a large banner strung over a side street called Mohammed Mahmoud, where most of the fighting occurred, declaring the street would now be called the “Eyes of the Revolution” street, in honor of the hundreds of protesters who suffered eye injuries as a result of tear gas used by police.
About 5,000 supporters of the military staged their own demonstration several miles (kilometers) north of Tahrir in the district of Abbassiyah, not far from the Defense Ministry.
Thousands of pro-democracy protesters also took to the streets in other cities, including at least 10,000 in Alexandria and smaller crowds in Luxor and Assiut in southern Egypt.
The military has rejected calls to immediately step down, saying its claim to power is supported by the warm welcome given to troops who took over the streets from the discredited police early in the anti-Mubarak uprising as well as an overwhelming endorsement for constitutional amendments they proposed in a March referendum.
Tantawi has offered another referendum on whether his military council should step down immediately.
Such a vote, activists say, would divide the nation and likely open the door for a deal between the military and political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s largest and best organized group, the Brotherhood is notorious for its opportunism and thirst for power. It was empowered after the fall of Mubarak, regaining legitimacy after spending nearly 60 years as an outlawed group.