CAIRO — Egypt's military rulers struggled Sunday to contain an explosion of protests demanding their ouster, as a growing crowd of demonstrators pushed security forces out of Tahrir Square for a second night in a row and new clashes broke out across the country.
Egyptian troops, heralded as saviors when their generals ushered out President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, led a new push to clear the square. And the battles took a more lethal toll: The Health Ministry said that at least six were killed, and doctors set up in the square said that the number could be twice that.
But the violence only seemed to reinforce the revolutionary urgency that had returned to the square, and when the army moved to push out the thousands of protesters, more than twice as many quickly flooded back.
"This is February 12!" said Abeer Mustafa, a 42-year-old wedding planner. "We have finally succeeded in reclaiming our revolution."
The crackdown, including the reported use of live ammunition by troops, elicited condemnation across the political spectrum, joined by voices who had previously taken a more restrained tone toward the military council, from the liberal former diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Almost all the civilian parties called for an accelerated end to military rule before the drafting of a constitution — either an immediate handover to some civilian unity government, a turnover to the lower house of Parliament when it is seated in April, or after a presidential election, to be scheduled as soon as possible.
In its first official response to the crisis, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces repeated its commitment to its "road map" of the transition, but it did nothing to move up or clarify its exit date, now set for some time after drafting of a constitution and electing of a president in perhaps 2013 or beyond. The council expressed "sorrow" over the situation.
The protests were an eruption of anger that started with a peaceful march by tens of thousands of Islamists on Friday. When security forces tried to clear a small tent city that remained in the square on Saturday, a far more diverse cross section of young people and professionals turned out in support, battling the police.
By Sunday, the clashes had spread to at least seven other cities, including the major population centers of Alexandria and Suez.
With parliamentary elections set to begin Nov. 28, television commentators were raising alarms even before the clashes erupted that the military and security forces were not equipped to secure the polls. Many protestors said they feared that the military encouraged the strife as a pretext for postponing the election of a more legitimate body.
But a delay would be sure to set off an even bigger insurrection. The Muslim Brotherhood warned Sunday against a cancellation or delay in the elections.