CAIRO – Egypt's powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which is leading in parliament elections that continued Wednesday, refused to join calls by secular and liberal activists for the ruling military to move up its handover of power to civilians.
Activists are seeking to capitalize on anger over the military's heavy-handed crackdown on protesters in Cairo the past week to pressure the ruling generals to step down before the current target of the end of June.
The military, which took power after the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak, has clashed for days with protesters against its rule in fighting that killed at least 14 people and wounded hundreds. Images of soldiers attacking women protesters, dragging them by the hair, beating them and even stripping one half naked in the street have been a blow to the prestige of the army.
The Brotherhood, however, has refused to participate in the protests and on Tuesday it rejected proposals for moving up the handover of power by the military -- wary of disrupting the ongoing parliament elections that the group is winning.
In a statement, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said the proposals were unconstitutional and "will not solve the current crisis." Instead, it called for "full-throttle efforts to complete the legislative elections."
Egypt on Wednesday held a run-off vote from its second round of voting in the multistage election to choose the first parliament since Mubarak's fall.
Turnout was low, with none of the long lines outside polling centers seen in previous rounds.
"I know nothing about politics, but I want stability for my country," said Fatmah Morsi as she was about to cast her ballot in Dokki, a middle-class neighborhood in Cairo. "Enough with the protests. We should give this government a chance."
The balloting, which is taking place Wednesday and Thursday, is to determine the winners in races where no candidate got at least 50 percent of the vote during the second round of voting, held Dec. 14 and 15. The first round was held in late November and the third and final is to be held in January. Each round is held in a different part of the country. The new parliament is not scheduled to be seated until March, after three rounds of voting for the legislature's largely toothless upper chamber is also completed.
Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and best organized political group, have dominated the vote thus far and are likely to maintain their comfortable lead.
In recent days, activist groups have been trying to rally support for proposals by which the military would cede its position as head of state in January. But the question is, to whom. Under one initiative, it would surrender its powers to the speaker of parliament. Under another, presidential elections set for June would be moved up to January and the powers would be given to the winner.
Islam Lotfi, a founding member of the Egyptian Current Party, said the group was focusing on building support for the proposal among other pro-revolutionary youth groups.
Emad Shahin, a professor at the American University in Cairo who drafted one version of the proposals, said the Brotherhood rejected the ideas because "feel this is not the right time to upset the current arrangement" and want to avoid "any escalation in order to ensure the completion of the parliamentary elections."
The military said in a statement Tuesday that it was prepared to discuss initiatives that "contribute to the stability and security of the country."
The Brotherhood is on track to gain around 40-50 percent of the parliament's seats and is pushing for the military to give it the power to form the next government. The more conservative Salafi movement's main Al-Nour Party has so far won more than 20 percent, setting the stage for an Islamist majority, through the two groups don't see eye to eye on everything. Both groups are looking to have a strong hand in writing the country's next constitution.
On Tuesday, some 10,000 women marched in central Cairo, demanding the military step down and expressing their anger over the abuse of women protesters by troops during the crackdown.
The military issued a statement expressing its regret but did not apologize for the brutality, which included pulling women by their hair, beating them with truncheons and stomping on them as they lay on the ground. The image of one woman -- stripped half naked by the troops, kicked and stomped on -- has particularly enraged women and drawn a sharp rebuke from the United States and the United Nations.
A women-only protest is a rarity in Egypt, though tens of thousands of women took part in the wave of protests that engulfed Egypt during the 18-day, January-February uprising that toppled Mubarak. The high number of protesters Tuesday underlined the depth of anger at the abuse of women by the soldiers. Women's modesty in public is a cornerstone of social customs in conservative Egypt.