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Protests against military rule cloud Egypt election

MYT 7:30:00 PM

CAIRO (Reuters) - Protesters gathered again in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Sunday to try to evict the generals who replaced Hosni Mubarak, in a trial of strength that has muddied the run-up to Egypt's first vote since a popular revolt deposed the former leader.

A protester shouts in front of the headquarters of the Egyptian cabinet in Cairo November 26, 2011. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

The parliamentary election that begins on Monday is the first step on the ruling military council's timetable towards a transfer to civilian rule, now promised for July.

But the demonstrators want the council to step aside now in favour of a civilian interim administration and reject its choice of 78-year-old Kamal Ganzouri to form the next cabinet.

Other Egyptians yearn for stability after a week of bloodshed that has killed 42 people and wounded over 2,000, preferring for now to let the generals run a nation whose political turmoil has thrust the economy deeper into crisis.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the council, said the army would ensure security at the polling booths and reiterated that the vote would go ahead on schedule.

"We are at a crossroads. There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt towards safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow," he said in comments carried by the website of state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.

The generals have received tacit support from Islamists anxious that nothing disrupt two days of voting in the first of three rounds of an election in which they expect to do well.

Basam Sharaf, among protesters outside parliament, said the objection to Ganzouri was not his age, but the policies he pursued as prime minister under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999.

"Two-thirds of the ministers that Ganzouri appointed in his day are now in Tora prison," he said, referring to Mubarak-era officials accused of corruption and other offences who were put on trial after an uprising swept Mubarak from power in February.

Alarmed by Egypt's latest bout of unrest, the United States and the European Union have condemned the "excessive force" used by the authorities and urged a swift handover to civilian rule.

Some protesters favour Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, who has offered to drop his campaign for the presidency and to lead a government of national unity.

"We are trying to create a government that represents the revolution and the people's demands," said protester Hiba Hani.

"We have no faith in Ganzouri or anyone brought in with him."

ElBaradei is respected among pro-democracy campaigners and has a high international profile, but many Egyptians view him as out of touch because he spent much of his career abroad.

There was no sign that the generals would change course, although the latest unrest has already forced them accelerate plans to hand over to civilian rule.

ISLAMIST PARTIES

Islamist parties banned under Mubarak have been campaigning hard to secure a strong foothold in mainstream politics.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie said what was important was the composition and powers of Ganzouri's cabinet, Egypt's fourth this year.

"We have suffered from three cabinets that had no powers and the end-result was failure that has been suffered by the Egyptian people," he said late on Saturday.

Badie suggested conspiratorial hands were at work in the unrest. "There are powers from inside and outside Egypt that don't want stability for Egypt or development, and this is something that is being pushed and paid for," he declared.

Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya group, which has now renounced violence but led an armed insurgency against Mubarak during Ganzouri's government in the 1990s, said it would not join the protesters in Tahrir, criticising them for trying to "force a certain prime minister on Egypt," a reference to ElBaradei.

The Salafi Islamist Nour Party said it would meet Ganzouri in the next few days to propose names for his cabinet.

Protesters appear split over the election. Some do not trust the military to ensure a free vote. Others say the poll should not be a casualty of the campaign against military rule.

"This is one thing, that is something else. Everyone will be in the polling stations come Monday," said Abdul Aal Diab, a 46-year-old state employee protesting in Tahrir.

"Why are you so sure?" interrupted Mustafa Essam, 27. "I won't go. I have no faith in anyone."

Groups chanted slogans against the generals in Tahrir as people wandered among banners, tents and tea stalls with chairs and tables that lent the protest an air of permanence.

The vote due to start on Monday is billed as Egypt's first free and fair election in decades, but a confusing array of candidates and parties and fears of bullying, bribery and violence at polling stations offer voters a daunting challenge.

The complex, drawn-out election to parliament's lower house concludes in early January. Voting for the upper house and the presidency will follow before the end of June.

(Additional reporting by Patrick Werr and Ahmed Tolba; Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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