CAIRO — Egypt's military leader promised to speed the transition to civilian rule, saying Tuesday that presidential elections will be held by the end of June 2012. But the major concession was immediately rejected by tens of thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, who responded with chants of "Leave, leave!" now.
Late Tuesday, tear gas was pouring into Tahrir Square but dissipated in about 10 minutes, according to tweeted reports by NBC's News' Richard Engel.
The protests continued hours after Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi vowed that landmark parliamentary elections will start on schedule on Monday, the first vote since longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted in an uprising nine months ago. And he said the military was prepared to hold a referendum on immediately transferring power to a civilian authority if people demand it.
Tantawi said he has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's civilian government and politicians who attended a 5-hour crisis meeting with the ruling generals said the military intended to replace Sharaf's cabinet with a "national salvation" government. It was not clear who might head the new Cabinet, but names of a couple presidential hopefuls were mentioned.
"Our demands are clear," said Khaled El-Sayed, a protester from the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the upcoming parliamentary election. "We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority." He also demanded that the commander of the military police and the Interior Minister, who is in charge of the police, be tried for the "horrific crimes" of the past few days, when 29 people were killed in clashes, most of them in Cairo.
The standoff culminated four days of clashes and demonstrations around the country that have constituted the most sustained challenge so far to nine months of military rule. It plunges the country deeper into a crisis that may only hamper the democratic transition the protesters are fighting for.Slideshow: Protests continue in Egypt (on this page)
In Tahrir Square, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak, with jubilation over the large turnout mixed with the seething anger directed at the military. On Tuesday, the protesters had called for a million people to turn out and drew a massive crowd of tens of thousands.
The crowds carried an open wooden coffin with a body of a slain protester wrapped in white and held a funeral in the middle of the square.
A stuffed military uniform was hung from a central light pole with a cardboard sign on its neck saying "Execute the field marshal," a reference to Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister of 20 years. People cheered when the effigy was hung and state television showed some hitting it with sticks or shoes.
Men in the square opened a corridor in the middle of the crowds and formed a human chain to keep it open, giving easy access to motorcycles and ambulances ferrying the wounded to several field hospitals in the square.
Sweet smells of popcorn and cotton candy mingled with tear gas and burning garbage.
As night fell on the square, thousands streamed in over a bridge across the Nile river. Men and women carrying blankets and boxes of supplies chanted: "Down with the field marshal."
The latest round of unrest began Saturday when security forces violently evicted a few hundred protesters who camped out in Tahrir. The perceived use of excessive force angered activists, who began to flock to the square. A joint army and police attempt to clear the square on Sunday evening failed, leaving protesters more determined to dig in there.
The clashes played out amid charges that the military was trying to cling on to power after an elected parliament is seated and a new president elected. The military recently proposed that a "guardianship" role for itself be enshrined in the next constitution and that it would enjoy immunity from any civilian oversight.
Further confusing the political situation, the military-backed civilian government on Monday submitted a mass resignation in response to the turmoil.
In his brief televised address to the nation, Tantawi did not mention a specific date for the transfer of power, although the presidential election has long been considered the final step in the process. The military has previously floated the end of next year or early 2013 as the date for the presidential vote.
"The armed forces, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has no desire to rule and puts the country's interests above all. It is ready to hand over responsibility immediately and return to its original duty of defending the country if the people want that and through a public referendum if it is necessary," he said.
Tantawi sought to cast the military as the nation's foremost patriots and angrily denounced what he called attempts to taint its reputation.
But he hinted at conspiratorial plots behind the protests, much like Mubarak did in his final days.
He spoke of forces "who are working in the dark to incite sedition and drive a wedge between the people and the Armed Forces or between different segments of the Egyptian people."
"At the end we will hand over power to an elected civil authority," Tantawi said, but he did not offer to step down. The crowd in Tahrir Square responded with chants of, "the people want the fall of the Field Marshal."
The crowds in Tahrir immediately rejected Tantawi's proposals with chants of "erhal," or leave.
"We are not leaving, he leaves," chanted the protesters. "The people want to bring down the field marshal," they shouted.
A youth group that played a key role in the anti-Mubarak uprising said it decided to remain in the square until the military handed over power to a civilian presidential council to run the country's affairs. Beside a representative of the military, the council should include pro-reform leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, said the April 6 group.
"The military council has failed to manage the transitional period, and the generals' hands are tainted by the blood of the nation's youth and have been collaborating with the counterrevolution," the group said in a statement.
Others in the square said the referendum was just a ploy to divide people.
American students arrested
Three American students at the American University of Cairo, which sits on Tahrir Square, were arrested outside the university's campus Monday night, Morgan Roth, a spokeswoman for the university, told NBC News.
She did not specify whether any charges had been filed or what any charges may be, but she named the three students as Luke Gates, an Indiana University student from Bloomington, Indiana; Gregory Porter, a Drexel University student from Glenside, Pennsylvania; and Derrik Sweeney, a Georgetown University student from Jefferson City, Missouri.
The three were on a study abroad program with the American University of Cairo.
They were being held at the Abdeen police station in Cairo, NBC reported.
Egyptian television said that they had been arrested after being seen throwing fire bombs from the roof of a building owned by the American University of Cairo, NBC News' Richard Engel reported.
George Gates, the father of a 21-year-old Luke Gates, also confirmed to NBC that his son had been arrested "sometime late last night," and said the family was in contact with the Department of State.
On what appears to be Luke Gates' Twitter feed, Gates lists his location as Cairo, Egypt and makes references to being in Tahrir Square.
His last post, dated Monday, November 21, read, "reports of tear gas being fired from AUC campus on Tahrir, university officials have started investigating."
An airport official also said a U.S. citizen who had been arrested while allegedly filming security forces at Tahrir Square was deported Tuesday to the United Arab Emirates from which he had arrived.
State television showed brief footage of the three students, males who appeared to be in their early 20s.
The new wave of protests and violence around the country that began on Saturday has left 29 dead and has thrown Egypt's politics into chaos less than a week before landmark parliamentary elections were to begin.
"The army is making the same mistake as Mubarak. They hear the demands but respond when it's too late," said protester Mustafa Abdel-Hamid, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who came to Tahrir even though his movement has not endorsed the protests over the past four days.
Egypt's military has been backed into a difficult corner. Protesters are demanding it surrender the reins of power — or at least set a firm date in the very near future for doing so soon. Without that, few civilian political leaders are likely to join a new government for fear of being tainted as facades for the generals, as many consider the current Cabinet.
The political uncertainty and prospect of continued violence dealt a punishing blow to an already battered economy.
Egypt's benchmark index plunged more than 5 percent, the third straight day of declines. Banks closed early and many workplaces sent employees home ahead of schedule for fear of a deterioration in security.
Several main roads were closed to traffic, adding to Cairo's already congested streets.
The United States, which gives Egypt's military $1.3 billion a year in aid, has called for restraint on all sides and urged Egypt to proceed with elections.
"We are deeply concerned about the violence. The violence is deplorable. We call on all sides to exercise restraint," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday.
Political uncertainty has gripped Egypt since Mubarak's fall, while sectarian clashes, labor unrest, gas pipeline sabotage and a gaping absence of tourists have paralyzed the economy and prompted a widespread yearning for stability.
Meanwhile, rights group Amnesty International accused Egypt's rulers on Tuesday of brutality sometimes exceeding that of Mubarak, saying the hopes of protesters had been "crushed."
The group said Egypt's Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) — which assumed control after an 18-day uprising toppled Mubarak in February — had made only empty promises to improve human rights.
In a report, Amnesty said military courts had tried thousands of civilians and emergency law had been extended. Torture had continued in army custody, and there were consistent reports of security forces employing armed "thugs" to attack protesters, it added.
"The SCAF has continued the tradition of repressive rule which the January 25 demonstrators fought so hard to get rid of," said Philip Luther, Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa acting director.
"Those who have challenged or criticize the military council — like demonstrators, journalists, bloggers, striking workers — have been ruthlessly suppressed in an attempt at silencing their voices ... The brutal and heavy-handed response to protests in the last few days bears all the hallmarks of the Mubarak era."
By August, Amnesty said the military council admitted about 12,000 civilians had been tried by military courts and at least 13 sentenced to death. The trials were "grossly unfair", said the rights group.
NBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.