Egypt’s military chiefs sought on Monday to portray the deadly protests that have roiled the country in recent days as the work of thugs and hooligans, going as far as showing reporters edited video of men and women lobbing rocks and firebombs at security forces.

In a televised news conference, Maj. Gen. Adel Emara indicated no remorse for soldiers’ beatings of unarmed protesters and asked whether the military should “let Egypt burn to the ground.” He said that soldiers exercised restraint, adding that the military police who tried to clear Tahrir Square over the weekend, striking civilians and torching tents, were not ordered to use violence.

One image from the crackdown has struck a nerve: Soldiers in riot gear were photographed and videotaped dragging a woman across the pavement after her black veil and shirt had been ripped off, exposing her chest, covered only by a blue bra.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called on “the Egyptian authorities to hold accountable those, including security forces,” involved in the violence.

In saying the action was justified, Emara took a stance that contrasted with the military’s past expressions of regret for violence against protesters.

“No human can withstand what these soldiers have withstood since the cabinet sit-in started: insults, intentional insults and intentional provocation," he said, referring to the protest camp established outside the cabinet building in downtown Cairo. “There’s a difference between the pure protester with a demand to present and a person who destroys and burns the nation."

Emara appeared to count on the belief that many, if not most, Egyptians have grown weary of the protesters, fearing that the country's instability is deepening with each clash. But activists pushed back, flooding the Internet with images of women being struck and dragged by soldiers through the streets and of people who had been fatally shot or beaten by security forces.

Members of the small crowd in battered Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the winter revolt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak, said they would not leave. But they acknowledged feeling dejected, marginalized and alone.

“Public opinion is against us,” said Noor Ayman Nour, an activist who was beaten and detained by soldiers on Friday.

Both sympathizers and critics of the protesters seemed to agree on one thing as the unrest that has killed 12 people and wounded more than 800 entered its fourth day: They long for stability after 11 months of uncertainty, violence and economic stagnation.

“We are now back to where we started on January 25,” when the uprising began, said Mohammed Kenawi, 24, a doctor who worked in a field hospital at a church near the square until military police raided it Sunday morning. “The country wasn’t with us then.

“We will lose a lot more people in this fight. But in time, people will see what Tantawi’s army did to us,” he said, referring to Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Demonstrators say the army now belongs to Tantawi, not Egypt.

Across the country, many Egyptians said they didn’t know what to make of the ongoing crisis in the midst of electoral season. The violence erupted Friday when the military tried to break up the sit-in of anti-military council protesters outside the cabinet. The crowd grew incensed after a young man was taken by the military and severely beaten before being released. The tension exploded into violence that included military policemen firing live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators.

Mostafa Gad, 54, said his son showed him videos of soldiers beating unarmed women and men to unconsciousness. But then he watched the military’s videos of young men throwing rocks and firebombs, a wounded soldier and what appeared to be detained protesters saying they were paid to cause unrest.

“I trust the army. They never lie, but I’m really confused,” Gad said, counting the cash in his register at a grocery store in downtown Cairo. “I blame them all for the violence, the activists who instigated it, the army who used excessive force. They should all go home. Let’s end this war.”

Some others said they had lost all faith in the army.

“Their actions speak louder then their words. I no longer believe them,” said Ahmed Ibrahim, 27, a pharmacist. “If it keeps on like this, the future will be as dark as a night with no moon.”

Pro-military fliers were distributed in taxis telling Egyptians to “wake up.” The fliers, posted online, blamed the United States, Israel, the Gulf state of Qatar and notable Egyptian intellectuals for causing strife.

Leila Ragab, a 32-year-old housewife holding her son Ayman, said she was convinced by Emara’s appearance on television.

“I trust those who defend the nation, not those activists who are paid in dollars to destroy it. Everything is clear,” she said. “The military should detain all of them.”