- Associated Press - Thursday, May 3, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s ruling generals promised again Thursday that they would hand power to a civilian administration within the next two months, a day after deadly clashes stoked by political tensions brought fresh accusations that the military was trying to create chaos so it could cling to power.

At least 11 people were killed in clashes that broke out Wednesday when apparent supporters of the ruling military council attacked a mostly Islamist crowd staging a sit-in outside the Ministry of Defense in Cairo to call for an end to the generals’ rule. The protesters were predominantly supporters of an ultraconservative presidential candidate who was barred from running in the May 23-24 presidential election.

Army troops were accused of standing idly by near the clashes and not intervening until after the deaths. But a senior member of the ruling military council tried to counter accusations from some rival politicians that the military might use the violence as a pretext to ignore its own deadline to relinquish control of the country. Some suspect the military wants to create turmoil so it can cling to power under the pretext that it is needed to maintain law and order.

“We say it frankly and clearly: The armed forces and their supreme council are committed to the handover of power on June 30,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Asar told a news conference. “We don’t desire power. The Supreme Council (of the Armed Forces) is not a substitute for legitimacy in Egypt.”

The military has promised before to hand over power by the end of June, the final step of a tumultuous transition to democracy after the ouster of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising 14 months ago. The election is expected to be followed by a runoff between the top two vote-getters on June 16-17 with the winner to be announced on June 21.

Gen. al-Asar also said that it was “dangerous” for the protesters to stage their sit-in near the Defense Ministry and denied charges that the military was behind Wednesday’s attack on the protesters. He told reporters that the military, which took power after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, will ensure the integrity and fairness of the presidential election.

The military has been accused of badly bungling the transition to democratic rule over the past 14 months, killing protesters, hauling more than 10,000 civilians to trial before military tribunals and scheming to enshrine a political role for itself after handing over power.

Protesters long have called for the military to step down immediately, but the generals have responded by saying they would stick to the timetable they announced for the transfer of power.

Adding to the tensions in the weeks before the presidential vote is that Egypt’s post-Mubarak and Islamist-dominated parliament has not been able to project its power beyond the chamber, while the ruling generals hold near-absolute executive powers.

Gen. al-Asar also denounced suspicions expressed mostly by Islamist politicians that the May presidential election could be rigged if the military-backed government of Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri remains in office.

“How could anyone even think that the armed forces, which are mandated with the noble task of protecting the country, could be involved in or cover up the rigging of the election?”

Gen. al-Asar and two other members of the military council spoke to reporters in Cairo. Above the three hung a banner reading, “The armed forces honor the promises they make.”

About 1,000 protesters have been camped outside the Defense Ministry for days demanding an end to military rule. Most are supporters of disqualified presidential candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist barred from running because his late mother held dual Egyptian-U.S. citizenship, making him ineligible under election laws.

But the violence, which broke out at dawn on Wednesday, prompted other factions to join in. Throughout the day, thousands marched to the site of the clashes in the Cairo district of Abbasiyah, protesting into the evening surrounded by armored vehicles and lines of riot police.

In Thursday’s news conference, Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mullah gave a stern warning to protesters who try to approach the Defense Ministry, suggesting that deadly force would be used against them. Political and pro-democracy groups are organizing a mass protest Friday near the Defense Ministry to demand that the military respect the July 1 deadline for stepping down.

“Self-defense is applicable against anyone who approaches a military facility. Whoever does that must endure the consequences,” he warned. “The Defense Ministry, all military units and facilities are symbols of military honor and the dignity of the state. Those who approach them will have themselves to blame.”

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