Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak did not order the army to fire at protesters during the uprising that toppled him, the country's top general was quoted as saying on Sunday.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years and now leader of the military council, testified last month in the ex-president's trial behind closed doors and under a complete media blackout.

We were not asked to fire at the people and we will never use fire, Tantawi was quoted as saying by the official Middle East News Agency.

Tantawi's comments are the first indication of what he may have said in his testimony, which some lawyers say favored Mubarak.

Defense lawyers say any testimony by Tantawi on Mubarak's role in trying to suppress the 18-day uprising, in which about 850 protesters were killed, could decide his fate.

My testimony in the case of the killing of protesters was a testimony of truth from an honest man who has been a combatant for 40 years, in service of God and Egypt, Tantawi said at the opening of a factory in the province of Fayyoum.

Despite the media blackout, leaks of Tantawi's comments have circulated the Internet and defense lawyers have given their assessment although they have not broken the gag order by withholding details.

Protesters have grown increasingly frustrated with the army, which was called into the streets when police lost control on Jan. 28.

They say it is protecting its former commander and that its use of emergency law reverts to the same tactics used by Mubarak to stifle dissent.

The army has rejected the criticism and has responded to demands to amend an election law after political parties said the original version would have let Mubarak's supporters back into parliament.

We will carry Egypt towards stability, God willing, Tantawi was quoted as saying.

Responding to criticism of his appearance in central Cairo last week during which he greeted passers-by wearing a civilian suit, the general said: Did they want me to wear a torn-up suit?