Egyptian Protesters Turn Against Once-Beloved Military

As the military chief and new Egyptian ruler promised reform, demonstrations against his rule only intensified

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Demonstrators and restaurant patrons listen to Field Marshal Tantawi's national address at Cafe Riche, near Tahrir Square, on Tuesday evening / Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO, Egypt -- Field Marshal and Egyptian military leader Mohammed Hussein Tantawi's televised offer yesterday to hold presidential elections sometime before July barely registered among the thousands of young Egyptians still in Tahrir Square, jostling to get to the front line of a fight with police that was boiling well into its fourth day. Each casualty seemed to double the number of people cramming into nearby Mohammed Mahmoud Street, eager to charge the phalanx of riot police unleashing a literally non-stop barrage of bullets, rubber pellets, and tear gas.

Call it the Tantawi multiplier effect.

With dozens dead and thousands injured, the calls in the back alleys around Tahrir have escalated. They don't want Tantawi's head; they want the end of military rule, period.

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Tantawi / AP

"Things have only gotten worse over the last 10 months, as if Tantawi and the military council were punishing people for the revolution," said Hadi Ismail, a 31-year-old computer programmer. He wore an argyle sweater, a blue canvas blazer, and a face mask against the tear gas. He stood with a trio of friends in a narrow lane swirling with the noxious chemical, taking a break from the battle.

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"We gave the military council its power. They have forgotten that," Hadi explained.

Less eloquently, but in flawless English his friend elaborated, "It's the same bullshit as before. We need a material change now. No more military rule."

So long as Tahrir remains full, and the ranks of young people willing to fight police remains undiminished, Hadi and dozens of others I interviewed believe the ruling military junta will inexorably tilt toward compromise and eventually defeat -- just as it did with President Hosni Mubarak.

"All the people are willing to die," Hadi said matter of factly "People are even more aware and determined than on January 28. The second wave of a revolution is always stronger and more violent."

Out on the square, an older man with missing teeth stopped a pair of youth with tell-tale white smears on their face, traces of a yeast mix that soothes tear gas. "Protect your revolution," he said, tears in his eyes, and not from any gas. "Save our country from those who are killing it."

Hundreds of thousands have converged on Tahrir Square in a manner not seen since the 18 days that felled Mubarak. This time, unlike the last, many of the dead have been paraded on stretchers through the crowd, their corpses reflecting the ghostly street-lamp light like halos.

It's hard to square the outrage, stoked each hour by the growing body count, with the insouciant language of Egypt's latest dictator. Tantawi, like Mubarak before him, seems to believe he is dictating terms to an unruly rabble; maybe he even believes his own claim that "invisible hands" are stoking divisions within Egypt.

The boys and girls in the square, the men and women, the unemployed and the well-to-do, express a simple disgust with the police who kill civilians, and the regime that is responsible.

"I'm not asking, I'm giving orders," said Ahmed Fouad Saleh, himself a retired air force officer now demonstrating in Tahrir Square. "We will have a new government."

A youth activist who helped establish a new political party earlier this year, Shady ElGhazaly Harb, shook his head in disgust, and a measure of disbelief, at the intransigence of the junta that dumped Mubarak as its figurehead but seems to have retained a fair number of his ways.

"They still haven't learned a thing," ElGhazaly Harb said. "If they don't leave power now, these people won't leave the square. Nothing else will do."