CAIRO Thousands of Egyptians marched to the Defense Ministry Friday to press demands for the generals to hand over power, a day before a strike called by activists to mark the first anniversary of President Hosni Mubarak's fall.
Egypt remains in political turmoil a year after a military council took over from Mubarak, when popular demonstrations forced him to end his 30-year rule.
The Muslim Brotherhood, while not involved in the protests has called for a coalition government to replace the military-appointed one criticized for its handling of soccer violence in Port Said in which at least 74 people were killed.
"The people want the overthrow of the Marshal," activists chanted during the march in Cairo, referring to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the army council.
"We are here to tell Tantawi and the military council to hand over power. This is a peaceful march and it will stay so," activist Sara Kamel said. "Since the generals have come to power, they haven't done anything for Egypt and they want to continue Mubarak's legacy."
Army units blocked access to the defense ministry, where the walls on one side of the complex had been repainted to hide graffiti plastered on by activists.
"Congratulations on the new paint. Down with military rule," read one line sprayed across the wall.
Egypt's religious authorities called on unions and youth groups to scrap plans for a wave of strikes aimed at forcing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from power, saying the people must show duty to the nation and spare its economy.
Activists ignored the calls, chanting "civil disobedience is legitimate, civil disobedience against poverty and hunger," as some people cheered protesters from their balconies, while others criticized them for snarling traffic.
The council called on Egyptians in a statement to be cautious of "conspiracies" and "plots" seeking to destabilize the state.
"The armed forces protected the revolution in its more critical time and its people in their just demands," it said. "We have fought together a year of unprecedented challenges and the army stood as a supporter of the people."
"We will be honest with you that our precious Egypt is subject to plots that aim to hit the revolution in its core and sow strife between Egyptian people and between them and their armed forces," it added.
"We will never succumb to threats or pressures. We will not be dictated or bow down to storms," the statement said, without explaining what threats it was referring to.
The army has deployed extra soldiers and tanks to protect state buildings and public property in the build-up to the strike, which has highlighted deep divisions between liberal and leftist youth groups on one side and the army, Islamist politicians and religious leaders on the other.
Hundreds also marched in the coastal city of Alexandria.
PRESSURE ON GOVERNMENT
Until a new president is elected, the Brotherhood had talked of using its large parliamentary presence to press the army-backed interim cabinet led by Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri to govern in what it sees as Egypt's long-term interests.
But after 15 people were killed in days of clashes between police and protesters angered by the Port Said deaths, the Islamist group has hardened its tone.
"The government has failed in managing the country. In any nation in the world, such a disaster would force a cabinet to give up power," Mahmoud Ghozlan, a Brotherhood spokesman, said.
The Brotherhood took the biggest share of seats in parliament in a phased election completed last month.
"We cannot go on like this forever. Egypt needs a firm government that enacts the rule of law and that is serious about the transition," Ghozlan said.
Hussein Ibrahim, an official of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, told Reuters the party was ready to form a coalition government but had not started any negotiations yet.
The Brotherhood is also under pressure from youth activists who are convinced the movement is doing the army's bidding.
(Additional reporting by Saad el-Hoseiny, Ahmed Tolba and Marwa Awad; Editing by Alistair Lyon)