Egypt's military ruler on Sunday defended his testimony last month in the trial of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, denying that the army was ever ordered to shoot protesters during the uprising earlier this year.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi testified in Mubarak's trial on Sept. 24 under a total media blackout. Leaks of his testimony suggested that he sought to absolve Mubarak of any responsibility for the killing of nearly 850 protesters during the 18-day uprising that forced him to step down on Feb. 11.
Mubarak is charged with complicity in the killings. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
In comments carried Sunday by Egypt's official news agency, Tantawi said: "My testimony in the case of the killings of the protesters was the testimony of a sincere man and a soldier of 40 years, one for God and Egypt. ... We were not ordered to open fire at citizens and we will never do that."
His remarks, however, did not address the question of whether the police and other internal security forces that were behind the deadly crackdown on protesters had received orders to shoot. The army, too, was called out on the streets during the uprising, but remained neutral.
Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister for some 20 years, and was widely believed to be blindly loyal to the former leader.
However, he and some two dozen generals who sit on the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of the country from Mubarak when he stepped down, pledging to return to the country to civilian rule after a transition period.
They have since been criticized by the youth groups behind the Jan. 25 to Feb. 11 anti-government uprising for not doing enough to dismantle Mubarak's 29-year rule. Activists also accuse the generals of dragging their feet in bringing members of the Mubarak regime to justice and of running the country in secrecy.
Chants against Tantawi and military rule are now common in street protests in Egypt. This appears to have angered the generals, who believe they played a key role in helping topple Mubarak's regime by choosing to remain neutral during the uprising.
Addressing a police cadet graduation ceremony in May, Tantawi said the military council convened in the middle of the uprising and decided: "No, we don't open fire on the people." But he didn't elaborate on why the council may have had to make such a decision, or who may have given any orders for the army to turn their guns against protesters.
On trial with Mubarak in the case of the protesters' killings are his security chief Habib el-Adly and six top police officers. About 100 other police officers charged with using deadly force are on trial separately around the country.
In his comments to Egypt's MENA agency, Tantawi also appeared to have been annoyed by the stir created by a walkabout he took last week in downtown Cairo wearing a business suit and tie. His appearance out of uniform had sparked speculation in Egyptian media that he might be contemplating a run for president.
Egyptians, he counseled, should make better use of their time by focusing on work rather than listening to people talking about his attire. "Did they want me to wear a torn suit?" he said, alluding to comments posted on the Internet's social networks that the career soldier looked smart in a business suit.
His comments came one day after the military floated an initial timetable for their exit from power.
The Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, discussed the timetable with a number of political parties that had threatened to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled to start in late November. The parties objected to clauses in the country's election laws that they claim could allow members of Mubarak's now-dissolved National Democratic Party to run as independents.
The military council failed to meet earlier pledges to return the country to civilian rule within six months, and to shed much-hated emergency laws blamed for rampant human rights abuses during the Mubarak era.