By Marwa Awad
CAIRO (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square Friday to press the ruling army to speed up the transfer of power to civilian rule, and an Islamist leader said his followers would stage a sit-in if the army does not respond.
Egypt's army assumed control after an uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, promising to transfer power to an elected civilian government within six months.
But the top generals now say they could remain in power until presidential elections are held at the end of 2012 or early 2013, citing an extended timetable of parliamentary elections and a six-month period to write the new constitution.
Floating in the square were banners accusing the ruling military council's leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, of trying to hold onto power.
"The people demand the fall of the Field Marshal" and "Whether in uniform or in boxers, we do not want army rule" chanted Islamists, mainly Salafists who follow strict Islamic teachings, and ordinary Egyptians.
Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail, a Salafist leader who said he would run for president, called on his followers to stage a sit-in if the army fails to heed the demands of protesters.
"We refuse the prolonging of army rule," Abu Ismail told cheering protesters over loudspeakers, urging them to remain in Tahrir until the army council issues a statement Friday.
Alluding to the military council's pleas for protests to stop on the grounds that they harm the economy, he said: "What hinders production is that the military council suddenly announced it will remain in power for another two years."
Protesters responded with chants of "We will not go, the council must go."
Elections for parliament's lower house are to be held in three stages, with the first on November 28. Voting for the upper house, also in three stages, will start on January 29.
Protesters also demanded that the military council use a law on treason to bar associates of ousted president Hosni Mubarak from politics and keep them out of the new parliament.
"There are businessmen behind the surge of thugs who turn peaceful protests into violent ones," said Abu Ismail.
The army, initially hailed by Egyptians for siding with the uprising, has come under increasing criticism from politicians, rights activists and youth groups, who accuse it of human rights abuses and clumsy handling of the interim period.
"Nine months have passed since the uprising and we have not seen either an effective government or clear signals that Mubarak's henchman will be out of the new parliament," Salem Mesbah, 35, said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most organized and influential opposition group in Mubarak's era, did not participate in Friday's protest.
(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Writing by Marwa Awad; Editing by Alistair Lyon)