CAIRO - Tens of thousands of Egyptians rallied in Tahrir Square on Friday to denounce violence against protesters - especially outraged by images of female protesters dragged by their hair, beaten and kicked by troops - and to demand an immediate end to military rule.
The protesters held pictures of people killed in the clashes that began last week and left at least 17 protesters dead. 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 drawn wide international criticism and increased pressure from activists for those responsible for the violence to be held accountable, including 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." Some marched into the square gagged, holding banners reading, "Our dignity."
The escalation has also driven a wedge between Egyptians - many of whom are tiring of the protests and fear that pressure on the military to step down would leave the country in serious turmoil.
Thousands attended a rival rally in another part of Cairo, 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," graffiti read on a wall near the rally.
The military council took power after longtime President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11 in the face of a popular uprising. The council is led 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, but the recent violence prompted many to demand an earlier exit for the generals. Many proposals for early elections have been floated.
Last week's violence erupted when military forces guarding the Cabinet building near the square tried to forcibly disperse a three-week-old sit-in demanding that the ruling generals hand over power to a civilian authority.