Egyptian troops moved into streets around the Interior Ministry in Cairo on Wednesday, replacing riot police who had repeatedly clashed with protesters trying to reach the ministry building, an army officer said. Riot police withdrew inside the ministry.
The removal of the widely hated police seemed to be part of efforts to calm violence that has killed more than 30 people and wounded 2,000 in Cairo and elsewhere in six days of protests targeting the ruling military council, not the army itself.
The Interior Ministry, near Tahrir Square, has been the main flashpoint for clashes in which police have fired tear gas, pellets and rubber bullets at stone-throwing demonstrators.
The protesters have derided an agreement forged on Tuesday by Egypt's ruling military council and mostly Islamist parties for a swifter transfer to civilian rule.
In another attempt to defuse tension, Sami Enan, the deputy head of the military council, said he was ready to meet youth activists driving the protests in Tahrir, State TV said.
As dusk fell, thousands of people, many of them onlookers, had crowded into Tahrir, which was also the arena of protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February.
Vendors were selling everything from snacks to face masks for protection against wafting tear gas.
Fatihia Abdul Ezz, a 60-year-old woman, said she had come to the square for the first time after seeing images of violence.
"They (the army rulers) were with Mubarak from the start," she said. "I came when I saw our sons being killed."
Protesters unfurled a huge sign denouncing army commander Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Enan and the council that has run Egypt since Mubarak's overthrow.
"Down, down with military rule. We the people are the red line. The people want to bring down the field marshal, Sami Enan and the military council," it read.
One man walked around the square holding aloft 10 spent tear gas shells, along with cartridge casings threaded on a string.
The overall death toll has reached 38 by a Reuters count after a man was killed in Alexandria and another died in what the state news agency MENA said was an attack on a police station in the northern town of Marsa Matrouh.
The Health Ministry said 32 people had been killed and 2,000 wounded in disturbances across the country of 80 million.
Faster handover to civilian rule
Tantawi promised Tuesday that a civilian president would be elected in June, about six months sooner than the army had planned.
"Leave, leave!" responded crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square. "The people want to topple the marshal."
The military had originally pledged to return to barracks within six months of Mubarak's removal. Its apparent reluctance to relinquish its power and privilege has fuelled frustration among Egyptians who feared their revolution had changed nothing.
Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defence minister for two decades, adjusted the schedule after generals met politicians, including leaders of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is eager to turn decades of grassroots endeavour into electoral success.
A parliamentary election, billed as Egypt's first free vote in decades, will start on Monday as planned, Tantawi confirmed.
Voting for the upper and lower houses will be completed only in March under a complex, staggered process. Parliament will then pick an assembly to draw up a new constitution, an exercise that the Brotherhood and its rivals are keen to influence.
France added its voice to those of UN and other rights groups in denouncing the military's handling of the protests.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said his country "strongly condemns the excessive use of force against demonstrators" and called for elections to go ahead on time.
"In this critical period, we reiterate our support for a democratic transition in the country that in 2012 should transfer power back to elected civilian authorities," he said.
UN human rights chief Navi Pillay called for an independent investigation into the bloodshed, saying the killing of protesters was inflaming the crisis.
"I urge the Egyptian authorities to end the clearly excessive use of force against protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, including the apparent improper use of tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition," Pillay said.
Instead of a peaceful environment for elections, she added, "we are seeing another outbreak of violence by the state against its increasingly and legitimately angry citizens".
Referendum on military rule
Tantawi angered many youthful demonstrators by saying military rule would only end by referendum, which they took as a ploy to undermine their cause by appealing to the many Egyptians who fear further upheaval.
"We have to wait and be patient with army rule. We shouldn't have a referendum, it's a waste of time," said Mohamed Rasheed, 62, a salesman in a Cairo jewellery shop, who pointed to discordant opinions among protesters in Tahrir.
"If we listen to them all, we are going to become like Lebanon," he said, evoking a nation notorious for conflict.
Many demonstrators are demanding that the military council immediately hand over all its powers to a civilian body.
"I am worried by the gulf of mistrust between the (army council) and the young people in Tahrir Square. The alternatives proposed from Tahrir do not seem practical," said Mustapha Kamal Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University.
Tantawi may calculate that most Egyptians, alarmed by turmoil that has hammered an already troubled economy, would prefer army rule to the uncertainties of radical upheaval.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which helped organise a big protest on Friday but stayed out of subsequent demonstrations, seems willing to compromise with the military in the interest of securing a substantial voice in the new parliament.
Some other Islamist and liberal parties, as well as three out of more than 10 declared presidential candidates, also took part in Tuesday's crisis talks with the military council.
Tantawi has promised a national salvation government to replace Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's cabinet, which resigned this week, but remains in a caretaker role.
Political uncertainty has battered Egypt's finances. Foreign reserves have tumbled to $22 billion in October from $36 billion in December, just before the anti-Mubarak uprising erupted.
Egypt's currency dipped to its lowest level in almost seven years on Wednesday and the yield on an Egyptian dollar bond soared to its highest since March, suggesting that investors are unconvinced that stability will return soon.