‘Last chance’ Friday dawns in Egypt

Egyptian protesters and police observed a truce yesterday after clashes that have killed 39 people in five days, but activists said they would intensify pressure for an end to army rule with a mass rally today.

The ruling army council again promised that parliamentary elections would start on time next week. It said it would speed up the timetable for a handover from military to civilian presidential rule.

Demonstrations by thousands of Egyptians frustrated with military rule have led to violent clashes with police in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square, in scenes reminiscent of the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in February.

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“The people demand the execution of the marshal,” crowds chanted, referring to army chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defence minister for 20 years.

In a communique, protesters called a million-man march on “the Friday of the last chance” to back demands for an immediate transfer to civilian rule.

The Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation called for a workers’ march to Tahrir Square. Another labour rights group called for a general strike to back the protests. Unions played an important role in the movement that toppled Mubarak.

The heads of two political parties who took part in a meeting with the military council on Tuesday said they now regretted attending and apologised to the protesters in the square.

The demonstrations appear to have polarised Egyptians, many of whom worry that unrest will prolong economic stagnation. Supporters of the army council had said they would hold a rally to back the military. In a statement on its Facebook page, the army council said it was “appealing to them to cancel the demonstration”, saying it wanted to avoid divisions.

Egypt’s ruling army council issued a statement in which it apologised, offered condolences and compensation to families of the dead, and promised a swift investigation into who was behind the unrest.

A ruling council member, General Mamdouh Shaheen, told a news conference the parliamentary vote, whose first stage is due to begin on Monday, would go ahead on time. “We will not delay elections. This is the final word,” he said.

Demonstrators said the truce had taken hold from midnight. Cranes hauled concrete barriers, later reinforced with barbed wire, across streets leading to the nearby interior ministry, a flashpoint for much of the recent violence.

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Protesters linked arms to prevent further clashes with security forces guarding the ministry.

“We are standing here to make sure no-one violates it,” said Mahmoud Adly, 42, part of a human cordon four people deep.