By Dina Zayed
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's interim military rulers are committed to transforming the Arab world's most populous nation into a democracy, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi said in a televised address on Saturday.
Tantawi, heading the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that was handed power when Hosni Mubarak was forced to leave office in February, has come under increasing pressure by protesters who say the army is dragging its feet on reforms.
Egyptian youth protesters vowed to remain in Cairo's Tahrir Square until their demands are met, after violence broke out in Egyptian cities between military police and protesters.
Protesters now on their 15th day of demonstrations have been camped in Tahrir and other squares across the country to back demands for more freedom for the civilian government, led by Essam Sharaf, an end to military trials and a time frame for the completion of the demands for reform.
"We are committed to pressing ahead in turning Egypt to a modern civilian state," Tantawi said in a speech to mark the anniversary of the 1952 revolution, a bloodless coup led by military officers that ousted King Farouk and marked the end of direct British influence.
"We are moving forward on the path to entrenching democracy that upholds freedoms and the rights of citizens through free and fair elections," he added in a pre-recorded speech, his first address to the public since Mubarak was ousted.
Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf reshuffled his cabinet last week and promised to speed up trials and political reforms to placate protesters in the longest-running demonstration since Mubarak was ousted.
But Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister for two decades, did not mention specific responses to the demands of the protests but spoke only of a "united front" to confront challenges facing Egypt both domestically and abroad.
"The decisive period in our people's history requires concerted efforts from all Egyptians to confront the urgent challenges facings us that cannot be dealt with by hesitation or semi-solutions," Tantawi said, citing efforts to contain an economic fall-out from the uprising.
Many ordinary Egyptians fear continued protests are derailing efforts to kick-start an economy that has been hard hit when investors and tourists fled.
As Egyptian military police fired shots in the air and beat demonstrators blocking a main road in Alexandria on Friday, hundreds of Egyptians gathered in an upscale neighborhood to demand stability and a return to normalcy.
The ruling military council, in a statement on its Facebook page, denied the authorities used force against demonstrators and accused the April 6 Movement, one of the main groups behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak, of trying to drive a wedge between the armed forces and the people.
April 6 described the army statement as "misleading allegations," adding: "We will not be scared by any allegation lacking in evidence or support."
"We will be the last to leave Tahrir Square, either alive with our heads held high after triumphantly achieving the demands of the Egyptian people or as martyrs for the sake of God and the nation," the group added.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba)