CAIRO - Tens of thousands of Egyptians demanding an end to military rule converged on Cairo's Tahrir square on Friday in what activists say will be the biggest day yet in a week of demonstrations in which 41 people have been killed.
The military men who took over after people power toppled President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 are themselves under fire from protesters who accuse them of clinging to power, leading to street battles that look like a replay of February's unrest.
The ruling army council named Kamal Ganzouri, 78, who served as prime minister under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999, to head a national salvation government. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet had resigned this week amid the protests.
The United States, long a bedrock supporter of Egypt's military, called on the generals to step aside "as soon as possible" and give real power to the new cabinet "immediately".
The military rulers say they are working on a transition of power, including parliamentary elections set for Monday, which could be overshadowed if violence continues. Some protesters say the army cannot be trusted to hold a clean vote.
Speaking to Reuters by telephone shortly after his appointment was announced, Ganzouri declined to reveal details of his new cabinet.
"Everything will be outlined later," he said.
After his appointment was confirmed, crowds in Tahrir chanted: "They brought a thief and appointed another thief", referring to Sharaf and Ganzouri.
"Say without fear: the (army) council must leave," they shouted.
Activists sought to bring a million people into the streets of Cairo on what they dubbed "the Friday of the last chance".
Thousands flooded into Tahrir Square for prayers, where Sheikh Mazhar Shahin told worshippers the protest would go on until Egypt had a new salvation government.
Protesters said they expected the crowd to continue to grow in the afternoon. Friday, the weekly Muslim prayer day, has traditionally been the biggest day of demonstrations in the "Arab Spring" protests sweeping the Middle East this year.
"We are all for the revolution and stand steadfast for the demands of the revolution. There is no conflict between us and the army," the cleric said in an address over loudspeakers.
Until a truce calmed violence on Thursday, streets around Tahrir had become battle zones with stone-throwing protesters fought police firing tear gas, pellets and rubber bullets.
A steady stream of men, women and children surged into Tahrir before Friday prayers. Some, like Atef Sayed, 45, with his wife and two daughters, were protesting for the first time.
"We're here to back the idea that the military council hands responsibility to civilians and focuses on military affairs. Nine months have gone by with many things that have happened in a way opposite to what the revolutionaries wanted," he said.
But enthusiasm for the protests was not universal.
About 5,000 people waving Egyptian flags demonstrated in favour of the military rulers in Cairo's Abbassiya district.
"The people want the emptying of the square," shouted the demonstrators. A big banner read: "Egypt will not be governed from Tahrir square."
Activists who tried to organise a march to Tahrir from a mosque in the capital's Shubra neighbourhood were rebuffed.
"The army council will leave in six months. We have elections in three days. What do these people want?" asked one worshipper angrily. "They are hired to start trouble."
The White House stepped up pressure on Egypt's military rulers to speed up the handover to civilian control.
"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," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
"The United States strongly believes that the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately."
Activists set up checkpoints at entrances to Tahrir square, searching people arriving and checking identity cards.
"We've had enough of government controlled by the military," read a huge banner tied between two lamp posts. Several hundred young men marched around waving Egyptian flags and chanting "Down, down with military rule" and "Down, down with the field marshal", a reference to army chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi.
FRUSTRATION WITH ARMY
The army, once hailed for its role in easing Mubarak from power, has come under increasing fire for dragging out a handover to civilian rule, even as Egypt's economy falters.
This week it promised to accelerate the timetable for a transfer of power to a civilian president and again pledged that parliamentary elections will start on Monday as planned.
The army and the Muslim Brotherhood, which expects to do well in the election, say it must go ahead, but many protesters do not trust the military to oversee a clean vote. Some scorn the Brotherhood for its focus on gaining seats in parliament.
The group organised a protest last Friday against army efforts to shape a new constitution, but left Tahrir as protests widened. It held a separate rally this Friday at al-Azhar mosque for the "liberation" of Jerusalem from Israeli control.
The Health Ministry said 41 people have died in the week's violence, state television reported. More than 2,000 people were also wounded in the unrest in Cairo and several other cities.
The latest upheaval makes it even harder to dig the economy out of a crisis whose first victims are the millions of poor Egyptians whose frustration spurred the revolt against Mubarak.
Egypt's central bank unexpectedly raised interest rates on Thursday for the first time in more than two years, after depleting its foreign reserves trying to defend a local currency weakened by the political chaos.
In fresh blows to confidence, the Egyptian pound weakened to more than six to the dollar for the first time since January 2005, and Standard & Poor's cut Egypt's credit rating.
The economic woes may argue in favour of Ganzouri, whose government virtually balanced the budget, cut inflation, held the exchange rate stable and maintained healthy foreign currency reserves during his time in office from 1996 to 1999.
He introduced some economic liberalisation measures and many Egyptians viewed him as an official who was not tainted by corruption. But his record serving under Mubarak could stir opposition from those demanding a clean break with the past.
Some Facebook activists derided the choice of a Mubarak-era man to steer the country into a new era, listing four ancient pharaohs as useful alternatives if Ganzouri turns the job down.
"Tutankhamun is more suitable because he is from the youth," one said, referring to the boy king of ancient Egypt. (Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed, Edmund Blair, Ali Abd El-Ati, Patrick Werr and Tamim Elyan; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Peter Graff)
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