Cairo: A roar of defiance rippled through Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday night as thousands of protesters demanding an end to army rule spurned an offer from Egypt's military leader to let the people decide in a referendum.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said the military was ready to hand over to civilians if Egyptians wanted it, in concessions designed to end four days of clashes in the capital and beyond that have left at least 36 people dead.
Impatience mounted among protesters massed in the square during Tantawi's nervous, faltering speech, witnesses said, and a chorus of "leave, leave!" erupted when it ended.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said the military was ready to hand over to civilians if Egyptians wanted it.
"He is trying to say that, despite all these people in Tahrir, they don't represent the public," said 32-year-old protester Rasha, one of dozens who huddled around a radio in a Cairo cafe to hear the speech. "He wants to pull the rug from under them and take it to a public referendum."
In Egypt's second city of Alexandria, hundreds of protesters held aloft their shoes in a traditional gesture of disrespect.
An army source said the referendum offer would be triggered if the people reject Tantawi's pledge of a new government and an earlier than planned presidential vote.
But protesters said Tuesday's mass turnout for a "million-man march" was already a clear enough message to the generals. Tens of thousands of people had packed into the square.
"All they are doing now is forcing people to escalate," said Mohamed, 23, a financial analyst. "They are leaving. There is no question about it... This opens the door for instability."
Clashes between protesters and riot police continued in side-streets off Tahrir. Among the thousands thronging the square, fevered debates on Egypt's future were under way. The dominant mood was one of defiance.
"It looks like he plagiarised Mubarak's speech," said Sara Hussein, a 24-year-old human rights activist. "The second that people saw the direction of the speech, they started chanting 'down with military rule'. They didn't even give him a chance."
Some who watched the speech said the army was inviting further trouble by not returning to the barracks immediately.
Others saw the referendum offer, coming one week before a planned parliamentary election, as a ploy to prolong army rule.
"It is a clever tactic. It will lead to the prolonging of the transitional period because having this referendum naturally means postponing the parliamentary elections," said Essam Sheha of the liberal Wafd party.
He estimated that four fifths of Egyptians would vote to prolong army rule because they yearn for stability and security since Mubarak's overthrow.
Bassel Adel of the liberal Free Egyptians party's presidential council, said: "This is political carelessness. It puts the army on one side and Tahrir on the other. Tahrir Square is the authority and it brought the council to power."
Some protesters saw echoes of Mubarak, who offered successive concessions only to see demonstrations against his three-decades in power swell for 18 days until he was toppled on Feb. 11.
"He's doing the same as Mubarak -- offering concessions one by one. It makes no difference. What we, the people, want will come to pass," said Ibrahim Sayyed, 33.
"He wants to set the people against each other," said Ali, Sayyed's 31-year-old brother.