The leader of Egypt's ruling generals said Wednesday the army has no interest in staying in power for a long time, but insisted the military council won't step down until it has "fulfilled its commitments."
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has come under increasing criticism of its handling of Egypt's transitional period following the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February. Many of the activists that engineered the revolt have accused the military council of moving too slowly in dismantling the former regime and bringing former officials acccused of abuses to justice.
In comments broadcast on state television and carried by the official news agency, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi brushed aside the criticism, saying "we will not abandon Egypt before we finish what we pledged to do and committed ourselves to before the people."
"The military council has no interest in staying (in power) for a long time," he said. "Given the chance, the military council will step down tomorrow."
Tantawi did not elaborate, but the military has pledged on various occasions to oversee free parliamentary and presidential elections and bring corrupt former officials to account. His comments appeared designed to debunk claims by some politicians that he and the ruling generals do not intend to hand over power to a democratic government as they promised.
On Wednesday, six presidential candidates called on the generals to hold presidential elections by the end of April to speed up the transfer of power. One of the candidates, Mohammed Salim al-Awa, said the plan is "the ideal way to end the fluid political situation, the security chaos and the economic crisis and to set the nation for the first steps toward freedom, democracy and stability."
Amr Moussa and Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh were among the other candidates to support the timeline. Egypt's top reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei and a presidential candidate, boycotted the meeting because he disagrees with the proposal.
A timetable put forward by the military council would hold presidential elections near the end of 2012, meaning the generals would be in power for nearly two years before they step down, rather than the six months they had initially set as a deadline when they took over from Mubarak. Parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak's ouster, are scheduled to start on Nov. 28.
Last week, state television broadcast footage of Tantawi, who served as Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, walking around downtown Cairo in civilian attire, giving rise to speculation that he might be considering a run for the country's top job. The military has given Egypt all of its four presidents since young officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the country's monarchy. It has since been Egypt's most powerful and secretive institution.
But on Wednesday, Tantawi denied that the military intended to nominate one of its own for the president's job.
"These are rumors that are not worthy of stopping to consider, and neither should we spend time talking about them," he said.
However, there are lucrative benefits the military could gain by holding on to power or at least have one of its men grab the country's top job.
There has been intense speculation that a civilian with a military background, like a retired general, would be the army's preferred choice for president. Such a figure would be loyal to the military, foiling, for example, any attempt to bring the armed forces and its budget under parliamentary scrutiny.
Alternately, the military could insist on a political role as a "guardian" of the nation in a new constitution due to be drafted next year, giving the top generals a collective say in all key policies.
Three Egyptian columnists and a film critic, meanwhile, withheld their regular commentaries in an independent daily on Wednesday to protest what they said was censorship by the country's military rulers.
The four _ Belal Fadl, Omer Taher, Nagla Bedir and Tareq el-Shinawy _ left their columns blank, publishing only a few words explaining their decision.
"I withhold my writing today to protest the barring, impounding of newspapers and the presence there of military censorship," the four wrote in place of their columns.
One of the four writers, Fadl, said the protest was meant to send a "symbolic message" that censorship was not the ideal way to deal with the press.
"It is no longer acceptable. The solution is to correct mistakes by allowing more freedom and to raise the professional standard of journalists," he told The Associated Press. "Our protest does not reflect a desire to have absolute freedom for the press without any controls."
The four writers publish their daily columns in the independent Al-Tahrir, a post-Mubarak publication edited by Ibrahim Eissa, who has long been one of Mubarak's most vocal critics.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.