CAIRO — Egypt's ruling military council warned Tuesday against attempts to destabilize the country as growing anger at the pace of post-revolution reforms fueled an expansion of a five-day protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The military also announced the resignation of the deputy prime minister and guilty verdicts for three former ministers in a major corruption case. But the announcements did little to placate thousands of protesters who have returned to Cairo's main square in their greatest numbers since the February uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
Many protesters were angered by what they described as an aggressive statement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is running the country on an interim basis until elections scheduled for September. Speaking hours after gunmen bombed a desert pipeline that supplies gas to neighboring Israel — the fourth such attack in recent months — Gen. Mohsen el Fangari, a member of the council, said that Egypt was "facing a planned and organized attempt to disrupt the country's domestic stability."
Then, wagging his finger, Fangari said that the council "will take any and every action to confront and stop the threats surrounding the country."
The speech appeared to backfire, with protesters in Tahrir Square vowing to hold their ground.
"El Fangari is threatening us on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," said Mohamed Mahmoud, co-founder of the April 6 protest movement.
The predawn pipeline attack was the latest in a series of blows to Egyptian security since the revolution, and a confirmation of public anger at the slow pace of democratic reforms under the military. The pipeline has become a regular target in part because of the military's failure to overturn a controversial Mubarak-era gas deal with Israel.
The pipeline, which also supplies Jordan and Lebanon with natural gas and had just been repaired from the last attack, was bombed at 2 a.m. local time. The target was a control chamber south of El Arish in the north Sinai Peninsula.
Sheikh Abdalla Jahama, the head of the Sinai Fighters Association, an association of resistance fighters formed after the 1973 war with Israel, anticipated further attacks on the gas facility.
"The pipeline is always left unsecured. Anyone can attack it anytime," Jahama said in an interview last week.
Egyptian soldiers and Republican Guard forces mobilized to secure the headquarters of the cabinet adjacent to Tahrir Square after several political and youth coalitions announced they'd march on the building Tuesday evening. The military suspended a cabinet meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
Hundreds of protesters marched to the cabinet demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, a once-respected figure. Mahmoud said that members of the protesters' political committee met over the weekend with Sharaf and "confronted him with the fact that he is neither satisfying our demands nor representing the revolution" that he pledged to support.
"We told him that if he is not capable of reform he should go home," Mahmoud said.
The public outcry and expansion of protests — Egyptian troops were mobilized over the weekend when demonstrators marched toward the vital Suez Canal with the intent of shutting it down — has sent Egypt's main cities sliding again toward near-paralysis. But Fangari said that the military "will not give up its role in administering the country in such a critical time in the history of Egypt," and he made several announcements Tuesday that appeared aimed at calming the tensions.
A court convicted a Mubarak-era prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, and two other former senior officials in a high-profile corruption case and sentenced them to as many as 10 years in prison.
Nazif and the others, including the reviled ex-interior minister, Habib el Adly, were also fined more than $15 million for "illegal profiting" in the case, which involved contracts to a German company for producing new car license plates at inflated prices.
Court officials also announced that future corruption trials will be televised on big-screen TVs outside courtrooms in response to demands for transparency.
The cabinet announced the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Yehia el Gamal — a controversial figure whose ouster protesters had been demanding for weeks. The move came ahead of a planned reshuffling of the interior ministry to suspend several senior police officials implicated in the killings of protesters in January and February.
In Tahrir Square, confrontations with thugs attempting an attack on protesters left seven people suffering minor to serious injuries. Witnesses said that the attackers were armed with machetes and bats and were arrested by civilian patrols that have sprung up to guard the square, and handed over to police.
"We caught around 40 armed people trying to sneak into Tahrir," said Mohamed Abdel Kader, a 30-year-old engineer volunteering for civilian patrols, adding that some were members of Mubarak-era state security units.
(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more international news visit McClatchy's World page.