Hundreds of Islamists demonstrated in Cairo on Friday against Egypt's ruling military council, demanding that senior officials from the deposed regime of Hosni Mubarak be banned from running for president.

The gathering in Cairo's central Tahrir Square was relatively small. Unlike a week earlier, liberal movements did not join the Islamists.

"Down with the military council," chanted demonstrators, calling on the generals who took over from Mubarak step down.

It reflected growing opposition to the generals even by Islamists, who preferred to stay away from street protests until recently.

Many Egyptians now fear that the generals are plotting to install their own president or stay in power themselves.

Islamists and liberals are both critical of a ruling this week by the military-appointed election commission, allowing Mubarak's last prime minister to run for president next month, but they are deeply split over policy and the future of Egypt.

Islamists swept last winter's parliamentary elections, capturing a clear majority of the seats. Since then, they have been clashing with the military council, demanding the right to form their own government.

Liberal and secular groups are critical of the military for bungling the transition and for violence against demonstrators. They came into conflict with Islamists over the composition of a panel appointed to write the country's new constitution.

The parliament packed the panel with Islamists, prompting liberals to walk out, fearing a religion-based document would emerge. The panel is being reconstituted.

At stake is the longtime Western orientation of Egypt, a main recipient of U.S. aid and a close ally of the West. Sounding pragmatic, the Brotherhood has pledged to preserve Egypt's ties to the U.S. and its historic peace treaty with Israel, but leading members have spoken out against both.

The election commission announced the final list of 13 candidates for president on Thursday after disqualifying 10 candidates, including the two top Islamists, but reinstating Ahmed Shafiq, who served as Mubarak's premier during last year's uprising.

The surviving front-runners are two Islamists and a veteran statesman who also served under Mubarak. Absent are prominent liberal reformers who spurred last year's popular uprising.

Protesters Friday worried that the military might try to rig the election in favor of a candidate who would protect its special status. Elections under Mubarak were blatantly rigged.

"Those who brought Shafiq back to the race are able to fabricate the election results," said protester Ali Deyab.

Another demonstrator, Ibrahim Yahia, echoed that. "They disqualified the most honorable men and approved the remnants of the regime because they want Mubarak back," he said.

Publishing of the list of candidates officially kicked off the election campaign. The first round of voting is set for May 23-24.

If none of the candidates wins more than 50 per cent of votes, a runoff will be held June 16-17 between the top two finishers. A winner will be declared on June 21.

The military has pledged to turn over power to a civilian government by the end of June.