|Protesters want the ruling military council to cede power more swiftly than planned [EPA]
Egyptian activists have gathered in Cairo for a mass protest against the ruling military and its handling of a series of clashes between security forces and demonstrators that killed 17 people and drew international criticism, even as thousands of others demonstrated their support for the army.
Tens of thousands protested in the capital's Tahrir Square, the focal point of protests against the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) after Friday prayers.
Students called for Egyptians to join Friday's protest with a march from Ain Shams University to Tahrir Square. Two students were among those killed in the latest clashes.
"The current predicament we have reached is a result of the army council's reluctance to play its role, its intentional foot-dragging, breaking its obligations and failing over the economy and security, putting the whole country on the edge of a huge crisis," said a statement signed by two dozen parties, youth movements and others calling for Friday's protest.
Al Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros, reporting from Tahrir Square, said the crowd had been swelling since after the Friday prayers.
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“There are also protests in other cities, in Suez and Alexanderia. Lots of different demonstrations, but one clear message: that the SCAF needs to hand over power to civilians," she said.
"They are also saying the recent violent crackdown, specially the violence soldiers used against women, is unacceptable."
The now iconic pictures and videos of a woman protester being dragged and stripped by military forces during bloody clashes that erupted last Friday dominated the media and heightened criticism against the SCAF.
"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.
A similar protests was held in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, where several thousand people marched towards an army base chanting slogans against the military. Smaller rallies took place in Suez, Ismailiya and Port Said, witnesses said.
A competing rally of several thousand people gathered in support of the military in another part of Cairo on Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Jamal el-Shayal, reporting from Abbasiya, said the protesters believe that it is only through the military establishment that some sense of stability can be restored.
"What will be interesting will be to see how the security forces deal with these protesters in comparison to those in Tahrir. Many people point to how there is a double standard."
"We are here to support stability," said Mamduh al-Sayyed, who was at the pro-military rally. "The January 25 revolution was honourable, but things have gone too far. We have now entered a parliamentary phase."
Anti-army protesters want the ruling military council to cede power more swiftly than has been planned.
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Some who are sceptical of the military's commitment to democratic change want a presidential vote as early as January 25, the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, or at least much earlier than the mid-2012 handover now scheduled.
The April 6 movement, which played a lead role in galvanising Egyptians to rise up against Mubarak, said the army's handling of the latest street protests showed it was seeking to "protect the previous regime".
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), leading in Egypt's staggered parliamentary election and wary of derailing the vote that will secure its place in mainstream politics, said it would not join the rally.
The ultraconservative Salafi al-Nour Party said on its Facebook page, however, that it would take part.
Many activists accuse the Brotherhood and other Islamists of betraying the protest movement in order to secure their own positions in the emerging new power structure.
The FJP said on its Facebook page it would not participate although it said it was "the right of the Egyptian people to protest and demonstrate peacefully".
The party emphasises the need for the handover of power to civilians according to the will of the Egyptian people through free and fair elections ... in a stable environment," said Mohamed al-Katatni, a senior member of the FJP.
The Brotherhood has said bringing the vote forward could "create chaos".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies