CAIRO — Security forces fired tear gas and clashed Monday with several thousand protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square in the third straight day of violence that has killed at least 24 people and has turned into the most sustained challenge yet to the rule of Egypt's military.
After months of growing tensions between the two sides, revolutionary activists threw down the gauntlet, vowing they would not leave the iconic downtown roundabout until the ruling generals leave power — or at least set a clear date for doing so.
Repeated attempts by security forces and military police over the weekend have failed to eject them from the square, and the rising death toll has only brought out more and angrier protesters.
But the bid to launch what some tout as a "second revolution" is snarled by politics, with Egypt coming up on key parliament elections only a week away. The loose coalition of groups that led the 18-day uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in February is fragmented. In particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, which gave the first revolution powerful muscle, so far refuses to take to the streets again, fearing the turmoil will derail elections it expects to dominate.
And those in the square have yet to find cohesion on a picture for what's next. Some want the military out immediately. Others would be happy with a set date in the near future for them to quit power. Many want the military to transfer power to a national unity government.
"We want the council to leave immediately so we can continue our revolution, which the military sold out," said Mohammed Ali, a shoemaker among the protesters, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. "A civilian Cabinet from the square is what we want."
Throughout the day, young activists skirmished with black-clad police, hurling stones and firebombs and throwing back the tear gas canisters being fired by police into the square, which was the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak protest movement. Sounds of gunfire crackled around the square, and a constant stream of injured protesters — bloodied from rubber bullets or overcome by gas — were brought into makeshift clinics set out on sidewalks, where volunteer doctors scrambled from patient to patient.
An Egyptian morgue official said the toll had climbed to 24 dead since the violence began Saturday — a jump from the toll of five dead around nightfall Sunday, reflecting the ferocity of fighting through the night. The official spoke on condition of because he was not authorized to release the numbers. Hundreds have been injured, according to doctors in the square.
The eruption of violence, which began Saturday, reflects the frustration and confusion that has mired Egypt's revolution since Mubarak fell and the military stepped in to take power. Protesters also marched Monday other cities, including thousands of students in the coastal city of Alexandria.
Activists and many in the public accuse the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of seeking to hold on to power, and they fear that no matter who wins the election the military will dominate the next government just as they have the current, interim one they appointed months ago. Many Egyptians are also frustrated by the failure of the military or the caretaker government to conduct any real reforms, quiet widespread insecurity or salvage a rapidly worsening economy.
The military says it will hand over power only after presidential elections, which it has vaguely said will be held in late 2012 or early 2013. The protesters are demanding an immediate move to civilian rule. On Monday, a group of 133 diplomats from Egypt's Foreign Ministry took the rare step of issuing a petition demanding the military commit to hold presidential elections and transfer power by 2012.
"What does it mean, transfer power in 2013? It means simply that he wants to hold on to his seat," said a young protester, Mohammed Sayyed, referring to the head of the Supreme Council, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.
Sayyed held two rocks, ready to throw, as he took cover from tear gas in a side street off Tahrir. His head was bandaged from what he said was a rubber bullet that hit him earlier Monday.
"I will keep coming back until they kill me," he said. "The people are frustrated. Nothing changed for the better."
During an overnight assault, police hit one of the field clinics with heavy barrages of tear gas, forcing the staff to flee, struggling to carry out the wounded. Some were moved to a nearby sidewalk outside a Hardees fast food restaurant. A video posted on social networking sites showed a soldier dragging the motionless body of a protester along the street and leaving him in a garbage-strewn section of Tahrir.
The military on Sunday night issued a statement saying it did not intend to "extend the transitional period" and vowed not to let anyone hinder the "democratic transition." The government has said elections will be held on schedule, starting on Nov. 28 and extending over numerous phases for several months.
Amnesty International condemned the violence.
"While the Egyptian authorities have a duty to maintain law and order, they must not use excessive force to crack down on peaceful protests, something that poses a severe threat to Egyptians' rights to assembly and freedom of expression," the London-based group said in a statement.
So far, the powerful Muslim Brotherhood has declined to join the Tahrir protests, though some individual members are participating. Their reluctance is believed to be because of worries the demands for the military's exit will lead to a postponement of parliament elections, in which the group is expected to make a powerful showing. Some of the secular protesters in Tahrir are worried the vote will give too much power to the fundamentalist group.
Monday afternoon, a prominent Brotherhood figure, Mohammed el-Beltagy, visited the square and was met by heckling and volleys of thrown water bottles from protesters angry at the group's refusal to join.
As the violence raged, the military council issued a long-awaited anti-graft law that bans anyone convicted of corruption from running for office or holding a government post.
The timing of the move suggested it was an attempt to placate protesters. But the law falls far short of demands by many that all members of Mubarak's former ruling party be banned from politics.
The interim government also said Monday it was seeking to replace culture minister Emad Abu Ghazi, who submitted his resignation Sunday to protest the Cabinet's response to Tahrir clashes, MENA reported.
The protesters' suspicions about the military were fed by a proposal issued by the military-appointed Cabinet last week that would shield the armed forces from any civilian oversight and give the generals veto power over legislation dealing with military affairs. It would also give them considerable power over the body that is to be created after the election to draft a new constitution. Activists already accuse the military of ruling with the same autocratic style of Mubarak.
Furthermore, there is widespread discontent with a military-backed government that has been unable — or unwilling — to act as woes have mounted in Egypt.
Over recent months, security around the country has fallen apart, with increased crime, sectarian violence and tribal disputes. The economy has badly deteriorated. Because of the weekend violence, Egypt's main stock index fell for a second straight day Monday, and airport officials reported a sharp drop Monday in international passenger arrivals — a further blow to the country's crucial tourism industry, which is one of the top foreign currency earners.
One of the most prominent democracy proponents in the country, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, called on the civilian government to resign and for a national unity government to be formed "grouping all the factions so it can begin to solve the problems of Egyptians."
"Power is now in the hands of the military council, which is not qualified to run the country, and the government, which has no authority," he said on a TV political talk show late Sunday. For the next six months, "we want see the powers of the military council given completely to a civilian, national unity government, and the military goes back to just defending the borders."
• Associated Press writer Ben Hubbard contributed reporting.