CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s ruling generals said on Saturday they were ready to use force to end protests in Tahrir Square after troops cracked down on demonstrators overnight and sparked violence that medical sources said killed two people.
Soldiers and police had used tasers and batons to try to drive out protesters from the square, the epicenter of protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak on February 11. Gunshots echoed across the square in the overnight operation.
But hundreds defied the army move and stayed. Thousands more joined them on Saturday, demanding power be handed to civilians and calling for the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the ruling council.
“Tahrir Square will be emptied of protesters with firmness and force to ensure life goes back to normal,” the council’s Major General Adel Emarah told a news conference.
The army has become a target for a hard core of protesters who say it is colluding with remnants of Mubarak’s network and thwarting calls for a deeper purge of former officials.
“The military council is part and parcel of the corrupt regime. It is made up of heads of the army that have benefited from Mubarak and his 30 years of robbing the Egyptian people,” said Abdullah Ahmed, 45, a protester in Tahrir.
Responding to Emarah’s remarks, protester Zain Abdel Latif in Tahrir said: “If they use force, we will use force. This isn’t Libya, where the army can just attack us.”
The protesters’ anger was fueled early on Saturday morning when the army tried to clear demonstrators from Tahrir during the 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. After failing to remove all the protesters, troops backed out of the square during the day.
The United States, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion a year in military aid, said it was concerned by events in Tahrir.
“We have seen the disturbing reports of the use of excessive force overnight in Tahrir Square and are looking into the situation. We urge the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to conduct a thorough and timely investigation,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.
Medical sources said 13 men had been wounded by gunfire and two had died. The army said the troops who entered the square did not have live ammunition and none was fired by soldiers. The army detained 42 people during the curfew hours on Saturday.
The military blamed the trouble on what it described as elements “that backed the counter-revolution” -- an apparent reference to Mubarak loyalists. They were trying to “sow discord between the army and the people,” it said.
Emarah said they included eight people dressed illegally in military uniform who had entered Tahrir during the protest on Friday. An investigation was under way, he said.
A former army officer said around 15 serving military officers had taken part in the protest to express anger with Tantawi and to show solidarity with the revolution.
Ibrahim Abdel Gawad, the ex-officer, said he spoke for the group of soldiers in uniform. He said 11 had been detained.
He said the officers had worn uniforms to make clear they were defying the authority of Tantawi, who served as defense minister for two decades under Mubarak.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians had packed into Tahrir on Friday in the biggest rally since February 18, when millions turned out across Egypt to celebrate Mubarak’s downfall.
In scenes reminiscent of the protests that brought down Mubarak, three army vehicles were burned out in the square and the roads were strewn with rocks from the overnight violence.
“Either Field Marshal Tantawi puts these people -- Mubarak, Gamal (his son), and the others -- on trial, or he leaves his post and lets someone else do it. The slowness of the process makes people suspicious that the army (leadership) might be implicated,” said Ashraf Abdel-Aziz, 36, a shop owner.
The army dismisses such charges and says it is guarding against any attempt by former officials to undermine reforms.
In a concession, the military said it would change some of the provincial governors from Mubarak’s era.
Although angering reformists, emptying Tahrir may please those Egyptians who are tired of the disruption caused by demonstrations. The economy has been hammered as tourists have fled and investors hold back.
“The army is trying to strike a balance between carrying out reforms, purging the old system and maintaining economic and political stability,” said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor who was active in mobilizing the protest movement.
He dismissed the idea that the army was complicit with Mubarak’s old network, adding: “The army knows well that many key people from Mubarak’s era control the economy and have deep roots in society. It is therefore taking measured steps.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, an influential Islamist movement, said the army and the people were united. “The solidarity that happened between the army and the people during this great revolution must continue and be strengthened,” it said.
It praised the army as the “protector of the nation.”
A statement in the council’s Facebook page said an order had been issued to detain Ibrahim Kamel, a senior member of Mubarak’s ruling party, for “incitement and thuggery by some of his associates that stirred up the people in Tahrir Square.”
General Emarah denied that such an order had been issued.
The military has enjoyed broad support since it took control, but complaints against its rule have grown.
“We condemn the intentional slowness of the military council in meeting demands of the revolution and call on Egyptians to return to Tahrir Square and stay until Mubarak and his followers are arrested and tried,” a coalition of youth groups that drove the initial anti-Mubarak protests said in a statement.
Some protesters took barbed wire that had been left unused by the army on Saturday and dragged it across roads leading to the square. As they had done during protests to oust Mubarak, demonstrators started checking the IDs of those entering Tahrir.
“We will not leave here again until they take tangible steps to put Mubarak and high officials on trial,” said Mohamed Abdul-Karim, 31, a lawyer. He said he was a member of a committee to protect the rights of people injured in protests.
Mubarak and his family are banned from leaving Egypt. The former president, 82, is living in internal exile in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Isabel Coles and Tom Perry; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Kevin Liffey