Egyptian riot police - AP - 24.9.11
Egyptian riot police in Cairo, September 2011. Photo by AP
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Egypt's military ruler on Tuesday decreed a partial lifting of the nation's hated emergency laws, an apparent attempt to ease criticism of his policies ahead of the first anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi said in a televised address that the draconian laws, in force for more than three decades, would be lifted effective Wednesday but would remain applicable to crimes committed by "thugs." The military has often labeled organizers of anti-government demonstrations "thugs."

Tantawi's decision to partially lift the emergency laws, which give police far-reaching powers, would likely not satisfy rights groups that have been campaigning for their total removal.

Rights groups say at least 12,000 civilians have been tried before military tribunals since the military council took power. Many of them, they say, were charged with acts of "thuggery" when, in fact, they were protesters.

The term also has been used to ridicule the military in the independent press, and some of the young protesters in recent demonstrations have been chanting, "we are thugs!" At least 80 protesters have been killed by troops since October.

To mark the anniversary, the rulers pledged to release more than 1,900 people who were tried in military courts. The release was set for Wednesday morning.

In another apparent good will gesture, blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad was freed Tuesday. He was arrested in March and sentenced by a military court to three years in prison over his criticism of the military's use of violence against protesters.

Tantawi and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces he chairs took power when an 18-day uprising forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11, 2011.

To mark the anniversary Wednesday, protesters are expected to take to the streets to call on the military to immediately step down and to demand retribution for hundreds of protesters killed by Mubarak's security forces or at the hands of troops in subsequent clashes.

"I'm here for the rights of martyrs. A year has passed and nothing has changed," protester Mohammed Khalil said he sat in a tent he erected Tuesday night at Tahrir Square, birthplace of the anti-Mubarak uprising and the main venue of Wednesday's protests.

Khalil was one of several thousand protesters who gathered at Tahrir Square Tuesday night, erecting tents and building podiums in preparation for Wednesday's demonstrations.

Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister for some 20 years, during which he was known to be unquestioningly loyal to the ousted leader. He and the other generals, according to activists, remain beholden to Mubarak, whose approval was essential for their promotion through the ranks.

Mubarak ruled for 29 years, and the emergency laws were in force throughout.

The activists behind Mubarak's ouster accuse the ruling generals of bungling the transition, large scale human rights violations and the use of excessive and sometime deadly force against peaceful protesters.

Last month, video clips showing troops brutally beating protesters and stomping on them while they lay on the ground created an uproar. The images tainted the military's reputation as the nation's chief protector and its most powerful institution.

One video in particular of a woman stripped half naked and beaten and stomped on by troops touched a raw nerve in Egypt's conservative society and prompted a rare protest by women to condemn the military.

For their part, the generals have accused some of the pro-democracy groups of following a "foreign agenda."

On Tuesday, a sullen faced Tantawi, who is in his 70s, renewed past pledges that the military would return to the barracks when power is handed to a civilian administration.

In a bid to deflect criticism of the generals' handling of the nation's affairs, Tantawi said the military council consulted with all political forces and "the revolution's youth" and shared responsibility with three Cabinets through the 11 months it has been in power.

Tantawi also called on critics of the military to think again.

"Surely, everyone who criticized the role of the armed forces and its supreme council at one given time must revise his stand," said Tantawi, who along with other generals consistently denied responsibility for killing protesters or blamed unknown "third parties" for the killings. They have often cited unnamed foreign powers as the source of the nation's troubles over the past year.

Tantawi's address came a day after Egypt's first freely elected parliament in decades held its inaugural session, a significant step in the handover process. The election for the 508-seat chamber was held over a six-week period starting Nov. 28. The Islamist-dominated legislature's first priority is to name a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution. The next step would be to put the draft to a vote in a nationwide referendum.

Presidential elections are to be held before the end of June, and the military has said it would return to its barracks when a new president is sworn in.

"The armed forces will be devoted to the its role to protect the nation once the transition period ends. It is a role that it has historically endured," Tantawi said.