Egyptian activists called for massive protests Tuesday to demand the country's military rulers cede power to a civilian authority as uncertainty grew over parliamentary elections due to begin next week.
The demonstrations are expected to be the largest since hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned out in February to force former president Hosni Mubarak from power in a revolution that shook the Arab world.
In a posting on the popular social networking website Facebook a coalition of revolutionary youth groups called for the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's civilian Cabinet and the formation of a national unity government. The Cabinet on Monday offered to step down but will continue to perform its duties until the military council decides whether to accept the resignations.
Egypt's Health Ministry said at least 26 protesters have been killed in the increasingly brutal clashes between demonstrators and security forces, including two who died early Tuesday in the Red Sea port city of Ismailiya. Medical sources in Cairo said at least 10 patients have died from bullet wounds suffered at the protests.
The violence has deepened divisions among Egypt's political parties, with the country's largest Islamist group – the Muslim Brotherhood – announcing it would not participate in Tuesday's protests. The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party said the turmoil might delay the elections and the transition to democracy.
Islamists are expected to dominate the polls, due to start November 28 and conclude in March. More moderate Islamist parties and the ultraconservative Salafis pledged to join liberal pro-reform groups in Tuesday's street protests.
Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces late Monday called for talks with the country's political forces. The military council urged calm and called for a national dialogue “to look into the reasons behind the current crisis and ways to resolve it as quickly as possible.”
In an apparent concession to demonstrators, the council also issued a law that bans anyone convicted of corruption from running for office or holding a government position. The move could restrict members of Mr. Mubarak's former ruling party from competing in upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, protests continued across the country in what some are calling “Egypt's second revolution.” Tens of thousands packed Cairo's Tahrir Square late Monday, while some 5,000 people surrounded a security headquarters in the northern coastal city of Alexandria. Witnesses there said police responded by firing live ammunition.
The White House said Monday it was “deeply concerned” about the violence and urged restraint by all sides. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon deplored the loss of life and called on authorities to guarantee the protection of human rights and civil liberties for all Egyptians, including the right to peaceful protest.
Amnesty International on Tuesday accused Egypt's rulers of brutality sometimes exceeding that of Mr. Mubarak. Hundreds have been injured nationwide during the unrest.