CAIRO — Egypt’s temporary military rulers delivered a sweeping defense of their tenure Thursday, saying they were committed to handing over power to a civil authority by the end of June, and denying any role in clashes the day before that left at least 11 people dead.
And they defended their decision not to send troops to the scene for hours, saying they did not want to escalate the fighting as the clashes intensified in the Abbaseya neighborhood and residents watched, horrified, from balconies. When the security services finally were called in, 12 hours after the conflict erupted, the scene became quiet. The trouble began after assailants attacked protesters staging a sit-in near the Defense Ministry.
“I salute the men of the armed forces, the leaders and officers and soldiers,” Gen. Mokhtar el-Mola said at the end of a news conference that lasted nearly two hours. For 15 months, el-Mola said, “they put up with all provocations and violations, but they are honorable men who endure for the sake of the homeland.”
Several of Egypt’s presidential candidates suspended their campaigns after the clashes, with some voicing concern that the military would seek to use the violence as an excuse to delay the elections, scheduled to begin this month, in a bid to hold on to power.
Another military spokesman who spoke at the briefing, Maj. Gen. Mohammed el-Assar, sought to put those fears to rest.
“When we look at the demands of the protesters, we’ll find that the first thing is the handover of power,” he said. “Today, we’re announcing it honestly and clearly: The armed forces and the supreme council are committed to handing over power before the 30th of June, 2012.”
Separately Thursday, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the head of the military council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, had given him similar assurances.
“They are absolutely going to hand over power,” Kerry said during a visit to Cairo. “I think they can’t wait.”
El-Assar delivered a chronology of the clashes, saying they took place between protesters and the residents of the neighborhood who were angered at the blocking of roads and attacks on stores. Protesters said they suspected that their assailants were thugs allied with a branch of the Egyptian security services.