Cairo: Protesters rallied again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Sunday to try to evict the generals who replaced Hosni Mubarak, in a trial of strength that has muddied the run-up to Egypt’s first vote since a popular revolt deposed the former leader.

The parliamentary election that gets under way on Monday and Tuesday is the first step on the ruling army council’s timetable towards a transfer to civilian rule, now promised for July.

Egyptians chant slogans against the country’s ruling military council during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photo: AP

But the demonstrators want the council to make way for a civilian interim administration immediately. They reject its choice of 78-year-old Kamal Ganzouri to form the next cabinet.

Activists had called for a mass rally in Tahrir to pile pressure on the generals, and by mid-afternoon there were thousands in the square, hub of the unrest that toppled Mubarak.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the council, said the army would ensure security at the polling booths.

“We are at a crossroads. There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt towards safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow," he declared.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Futuh, an Islamist presidential candidate who opposes military rule, said: “The nation is larger than Field Marshal Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Enan and the military council. A government with revolutionary leadership must be formed to meet the demands of Tahrir Square."

State television quoted Tantawi as saying the army’s role in the new constitution would be unchanged: to protect the nation.

The outgoing cabinet angered many Egyptians by floating proposals that would have given the army sweeping national security powers and protected it from civilian scrutiny.

The generals have received tacit support from Islamist parties eager that nothing should disrupt voting in the first of three rounds of an election in which they expect to do well.

Ganzouri’s Record

Bassam Sharaf, among protesters outside parliament, said the objection to Ganzouri was not his age, but the policies he pursued as prime minister under Mubarak from 1996 to 1999.

“Two-thirds of the ministers that Ganzouri appointed in his day are now in Tora prison," he said, referring to Mubarak-era officials accused of corruption and other offences who were put on trial after an uprising swept Mubarak from power in February.

Alarmed by Egypt’s latest bout of unrest, the United States and the European Union have condemned the “excessive force" used by the authorities and urged a swift handover to civilian rule.

Some protesters favour Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, who has offered to drop his campaign for the presidency and to lead a government of national unity.

ElBaradei is respected among pro-democracy campaigners and has a high international profile, but many Egyptians view him as out of touch because he spent much of his career abroad.

Muslim Brotherhood

Mohamed Badie, leader of the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, which hopes the election will catapult it into a strong place in mainstream politics, offered Ganzouri qualified support, depending on the powers and makeup of his cabinet.

He suggested conspiratorial hands were behind the unrest. “There are powers inside and outside Egypt that don’t want stability for Egypt or development, and this is something that is being pushed and paid for," he said late on Saturday.

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya group, which has now renounced violence but led an armed insurgency against Mubarak during Ganzouri’s government in the 1990s, said it would not join the protesters in Tahrir, criticising them for trying to “force a certain prime minister on Egypt", a reference to ElBaradei.

The Salafi Islamist Nour Party said it would meet Ganzouri in the next few days to propose names for his cabinet.

Protesters appear split over the election. Some do not trust the military to ensure a free vote.

Others say the poll should not be a casualty of the campaign against military rule.

“This is one thing, that is something else. Everyone will be in the polling stations come Monday," said Abdul Aal Diab, a 46-year-old state employee protesting in Tahrir.

“Why are you so sure?" interrupted Mustafa Essam, 27. “I won’t go. I have no faith in anyone."

Groups chanted slogans against the generals in Tahrir as people wandered among banners, tents and tea stalls with chairs and tables that lent the protest an air of permanence.

The complex, drawn-out election to parliament’s lower house concludes in early January.

Voting for the upper house and the presidency will follow before the end of June. A confusing array of candidates and parties, and fears of bullying, bribery and violence at polling stations set voters a daunting challenge.

Ahmed Abdul Fattah, 40, said he would vote for the moderate Islamist Wasat Party, but with no enthusiasm for what he said were poorly timed elections. “Why should we have them? So the Muslim Brotherhood can dominate us?" he asked.