Egypt's military leader says the armed forces is ready to hold a referendum on whether to transfer power immediately to a civilian government, if that's the will of the people.

In a brief televised address, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi also said presidential elections will be held before June 30, although he did not give a specific date for a transfer of power.

Tantawi said the armed forces has "no aspiration to rule" and holds the best interests of the country "above all."

"It is ready to hand over responsibility immediately and return to its original duty of defending the country if the people want that, and through a public referendum if it is necessary," he said.

The tens of thousands who had joined a mass protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square Tuesday seemed to reject the appeal, chanting "leave."

The military council has ruled Egypt since the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak earlier this year.

But many have grown impatient with the military rulers' progress on reforms, which has prompted calls for a "second revolution" and brought thousands back into Tahrir Square for a new round of mass protests.

"Our demands are clear," said Khaled El-Sayed, a protester from the Youth Revolution Coalition and a candidate in the Nov. 28 parliamentary election. "We want the military council to step down and hand over authority to a national salvation government with full authority."

Time magazine correspondent Abigail Hauslohner said the number of protesters in Tahrir Square grew steadily on Tuesday.

Hauslohner said the protesters appeared determined to stay put, so that they can show the military rulers that they mean business.

"We've already seen thousands gathered in Tahrir, clashes are still ongoing with intermittent intensity on one side of the square," Hauslohner told CTV's Canada AM by telephone from Cairo on Tuesday.

"Last night, we saw pretty severe clashes between security forces and protesters in an area of downtown not far from the square. It's not showing any sign of abating."

The four days of protests in Tahrir Square have spurred military leaders to reach out to various political factions.

On Tuesday, military rulers met with 12 political party representatives and presidential hopefuls in a five-hour session. Two politicians who attended the meeting, Aboul-Ela Madi and Mohammed Selim el-Awa, reported that the generals want to transfer power to a civilian government by July 1 and intend to replace the civilian Cabinet with a "national salvation" government.

They also said the military vowed to release protesters who had been arrested since Saturday, and to try any police officers or soldiers suspected in the deaths of protesters.

Tensions with protesters have also led to deadly clashes with security forces. As of Tuesday, at least 29 people had been killed since the start of the weekend.

Egypt's civilian cabinet also offered its resignation on Monday, which Tantawi said he accepted. Hauslohner said the gesture has not had much impact in any case.

"The Cabinet offered to step down in a move that was largely seen as an attempt to appease protesters and get them to move out of Tahrir, but I don't think that's going to work," Hauslohner said.

"A lot of the protesters, they have their sights set on the military council. That's the forces who took over after Mubarak stepped down and who protesters increasingly suggest are just an extension of his regime."

In Tahrir Square, protester Mustafa Mursi said the cabinet's resignation offer was a ploy that wouldn't fool the people in Tahrir Square.

"That was a game, like playing the joker in a game of cards. We want the military council to resign," the 60-year-old said Tuesday.

Mursi's son was among the casualties in protests earlier this year, which led to the ouster of Mubarak.

Mursi vowed to stay in Tahrir Square "until military rule ends and there is civilian rule."

Alessandro Bruno of the North African Journal said the fight between the people and the military is the real battle that both sides have been waiting for.

"This is the real revolution. Because the power was always with the military and now they are targeting the source of the power," Bruno told CTV's Canada AM on Tuesday.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird expressed concern over the deteriorating political situation to his Egyptian counterpart on Monday night at a summit in Kuwait.

With files from The Associated Press