Egypt's military rulers say parliamentary elections next week will proceed on schedule despite spreading protests.

The Supreme Military Council also rejected demands that it immediately step down, saying Thursday that would be a "betrayal" of the people's trust.

"We will not relinquish power because of a slogan-chanting crowd," said Maj.-Gen. Mukhtar el-Mallah. "Being in power is not a blessing. It is a curse. It's a very heavy responsibility."

The military has apologized for the deaths of protesters in Tahrir Square and in cities outside Cairo since last weekend.

In a message on Facebook, the ruling generals say they "regret the deaths of martyrs … from among Egypt's loyal sons."  

Nearly 40 people have been killed since Saturday morning in the worst violence since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown as president in February.

The apology was another attempt by the military council to get the protesters to end their demonstrations, which have resulted in violent clashes with security forces just days before democratic elections start Monday. The voting will take place over months and conclude in March.

Egypt's Interior Ministry had requested a delay in the election, because it said police could not guarantee security. But the military insisted the election proceed, which is likely to prove beneficial to the Muslim Brotherhood, the front-runner in the election, said CBC's Sasa Petricic from Cairo.

"That party was concerned that if the elections were postponed, that a divisive dynamic could take place and they might not get the kind of votes they expect on Monday."

P.O.V.

Do you trust that Egypt's elections will be fair? Take our survey.

However, most protesters remain skeptical of the military and its plans for the elections and the country's future, Petricic said.

Meanwhile, the scene around Cairo's Tahrir Square was calmer Thursday after five days of intense clashes. The relative quiet came after police and protesters agreed to a truce negotiated by Muslim clerics at the scene.

The truce came into force around 6 a.m. local time and was holding by nightfall, The Associated Press reported.

Petricic noted that the calm will likely be short-lived as large-scale protests are expected Friday.

"Tomorrow is prayer day, and after the mosque services it's been a tradition for many of these groups to show up in Tahrir Square to make their feelings known," Petricic said.

He said that tens of thousands of people are expected to jam into the square as they continue with their push to pressure the military to give up power.

Soldiers recently set up barricades and fences at flashpoint areas near the square to try to keep protesters and police separate, Petricic said.

With files from The Associated Press