CAIRO — Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied in Cairo's Tahrir Square Friday to denounce violence against protesters, especially outraged by images of women protesters dragged by their hair, beaten and kicked by troops and demand an immediate end to military rule.
The protesters held pictures of people killed in the deadly clashes that began last week and left at least 17 protesters killed. The scene of military troops beating and dragging women on the ground_ in one incident stripping one veiled protester half naked and stomping on her chest_ shook many in the largely conservative country, where the military in power since 1952 is highly revered.
The violence has also drawn wide international criticism and increased pressure from activists for those responsible for the violence to be held accountable, including the senior military officials.
"The women of Egypt are a red line," the protesters in Tahrir chanted. "We either die like them or we get them their rights," followed. Some protesters marched into the square with gags around their mouths, holding banners reading: "Our dignity."
The escalation has also driven a wedge between Egyptians_ many of whom are tiring of the protests and fear pressure on the military to step down would leave the country in serious turmoil.
Thousands attended a rival rally in another part of the city, chanting "the military and the people are one hand" in support of the ruling generals. They denounced the beaten women, expressing a sentiment shared by some that these protesters brought the violence on themselves.
"You deserve the military boots," they chanted, addressing the women. They also railed against pro-democracy campaigners, singling out Mohamed ElBaradei, a leading supporter of the youth groups who has expressed readiness to run for president. "Leave ElBaradei," a graffiti read on a wall near the rally.
The military council, took power after longtime President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February in the face of a popular uprising in February. The council is lead by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, a longtime Mubarak aide and defense minister for 20 years.
It has promised to transfer power to an elected president by the end of June 2012, but the recent violence prompted many to demand an earlier exit for the generals from office. Many proposals for early elections have been floated, some including holding presidential election on Jan.25, the anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak.
Last week's violence erupted when military forces guarding the Cabinet building near the square tried to forcibly disperse a 3-week-old sit-in demanding that the ruling generals hand over power to a civilian authority.
During the clashes over the past week, both sides threw firebombs, and several buildings were burned. A research center set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France's invasion in the late 18th century was badly damaged. Since the military took power, at least 100 people have been killed in such confrontations and in sectarian violence.
Abdel-Meguid Ibrahim, a 48-year old protester who come to Tahrir with his wife and four daughters, said anyone with a "little pride" would be moved by what they saw. He held a banner reading, "The woman that was stripped naked is my daughter and yours. Be a man and come down from your home."
"There must be accountability for what happened," he said. "It is the biggest crime to make people hate the military."
His wife, Hanan Hanafi, was unequivocal. "There are still men in Egypt, and they are ready to come to the streets so that the military leaves power quickly."
There were smaller protests held in other cities. For the past week, near daily rallies have been held in universities in Cairo, some marching to Tahrir or the Defense Ministry, to protest the death of students in the violence.
Friday's protest, named "Regaining honor and defending the revolution," was backed by more than two dozen groups, among them newly formed political parties born out of the uprising. Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood stayed away from the demonstration at the square.
The Brotherhood is so far the biggest winner in Egypt's parliamentary elections and has distanced itself from the protesters' demand for an immediate handover of power, in apparent attempt to avoid a confrontation with the military and foiling its election success.
Amnesty International said Friday that authorities in Egypt must not use force against peaceful protesters by targeting women with "gender-based violence."
"The shockingly violent scenes of recent days must not be repeated," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's interim Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Egypt's military authorities must ensure protesters are allowed to exercise their right to freedom of expression peacefully, without fear of attack."
In Tahrir, Wael Abbas, a prominent blogger and activist, said the rival rally is organized by supporters of the "power and lies."
"This is a revolution. It is not a (reform) period where we will sit and discuss opinions and drink tea," he said. "The military is using force, we are going to use the power of popular will."
Associated Press Writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.