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Egypt's military could hand over power this month

Egypt’s military rulers today reiterated their pledge to hand over power to a civilian president by July, a day after clashes in Cairo left at least 11 people dead and deepened concerns about the country's democratic transition.

Gen. Mohamed El Assar, one of three members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) who spoke to reporters today, said the violence would not affect the power transfer.

“Since November 2011 we have repeated in every meeting and on every occasion that the armed forces and SCAF are committed to cede power by June 30, 2012,” he said. “We say it clearly again today: SCAF is committed to cede power on June 30 or even before.”

State television reported that a SCAF general said yesterday the council would consider handing power to a civilian president a month early if a president was elected outright and no runoff was necessary. Egyptians are scheduled to vote for the first president after Hosni Mubarak on May 23 and 24. A second round of voting will be held in June if no candidate wins a majority.

The generals’ remarks appeared to be an effort to allay concerns that Egypt’s rocky transition was once again veering off course. The run-up to the presidential election has been a roller coaster of controversy, as an elections commission disqualified several front-runners, and several candidates temporarily suspended their campaigns after Wednesday’s violence. 

Since massive demonstrations forced Mr. Mubarak from power in February 2011, the generals who took power delayed elections and appeared intent on protecting their own power and privilege after the handover. They also oversaw widespread rights violations on many fronts.

But in the press conference today, in front of a banner that said, “The armed forces keep the promises they make,” the generals scoffed at suggestions that they wanted to stay in power. The presidential election will go on as promised and will be free of fraud, they said, adding that the military does not support a specific candidate. Three foreign organizations will be allowed to observe the voting, they said. They also said they have not requested special status in Egypt’s new constitution.

Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, said the generals were trying to reassure the public that the transition was on track.

“Nothing suggests that SCAF is really interested in prolonging the transitional period,” he says, adding that the generals would remain a player in politics after the power transfer. “In fact SCAF does not lose much by handing over power to a civilian head of state, particularly as no candidate has the intention of starting his term by engaging in a clash with SCAF over matters of informal economic privileges of the military.”

The generals also denied responsibility for the violence Wednesday. It took place near the Ministry of Defense, where protesters had staged a sit-in against the military. Unidentified people in civilian clothes attacked the demonstrators early in the morning, while police and military made no attempt to intervene. Protesters claimed they were hired by authorities to disperse the protest. Such events were common under Mubarak.

While the attackers denied being behind the violence, the military rulers did warn protesters from demonstrating near the Ministry of Defense, saying those who did so take responsibility for the consequences if the military acts in self defense.

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