CAIRO – Egypt's ruling generals repeated their pledge Thursday to transfer power to a civilian government within 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 the same time, the ruling military council warned anti-government protesters that deadly force would be used against them if they approached the Ministry of Defense.
At least 11 people were killed in clashes that broke out Wednesday when apparent supporters of the military rulers 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 justify holding onto power by claiming 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-Assar told a news conference. "We don't desire power. The Supreme Council (of the Armed Forces) is not a substitute for legitimacy in Egypt."
"Have mercy on the Supreme Council," he pleaded. "Our hands are clean of Egyptian blood."
Al-Assar and two other members of the military council spoke to reporters in Cairo. Above them hung a banner reading: "The armed forces honor the promises they make."
Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mullah sternly warned protesters that if they try to approach the Defense Ministry, 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."
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, a Democrat from Massachusetts, described Wednesday's violence as "disturbing," during a visit to Egypt and said the United States stands by the right of Egyptian people to express their political rights.
"We urge the government to investigate these events and ... hold those committed them accountable," he said.
He met with Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and said he "was crystal clear with me. He is very determined and very adamant that he and SCAF in full intend to turn over power. In fact, I think they can't wait. I think they are anxious. ... "They want to see this election happen."
He added that they are even ready to hand off power before June, if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote during the first round of elections.
"I believe SCAF wants to go back to barracks and hand power to politicians," he said.
The military has promised before to hand over power by the end of June, a crucial step in a tumultuous transition to democracy after the ouster of authoritarian leader 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.
Al-Assar 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 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 year, when more than 100 people have died in political violence. It cracked down on pro-democracy protests and hauled more than 10,000 civilians to trial before military tribunals. The generals have failed restore security which deteriorated sharply after the uprising, when police vanished from the streets. And they have failed to prop up the battered economy.
Rights advocates and various political groups allege the military is scheming to ensure a political role for itself after handing over power to protect its vast business holdings and other privileges from coming under scrutiny by a civilian authority.
Protesters have long called for the military to immediately step down, 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.
Al-Assar 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?"
He added that authorities are opening doors for international elections observers to monitor elections to ensure its cleanness.
"We have nothing to hide," he said.
Hundreds of protesters have been camping 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.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects style on general's name; adds details, new photos.)