Fear that Egypt's ruling generals are working to perpetuate their hold on power is causing a political furor, threatening a "second revolution" and sending relations between the generals and activists to new lows less than four weeks before a key election.
The outcry has been prompted by a proposal from the military-appointed Cabinet to shield the armed forces from any oversight and give the generals a veto over legislation dealing with military affairs. The measure also is designed to curtail the likely influence by Islamist lawmakers over the writing of a new constitution.
The proposal, which requires the adoption of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to be binding, has united both Islamists and liberals _ groups that helped engineer the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak _ in its condemnation.
Egypt's best known reform proponent, Mohamed ElBaradei, decried the document as "distorted" and demanded its withdrawal.
"There is a difference between a civilian democratic state that guarantees man's basic rights and military guardianship," he said.
The Islamic fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, the country's largest and most powerful political group, is leading the opposition to the document, saying it usurped the "people's will."
"This route goes against the will of the people, and will lead to another revolution," said Saad el-Katatni, spokesman of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party. "We call on the people of Egypt to reject the document to protect their rights."
If approved, the measure would shield the military from parliamentary oversight, give it a veto over legislation dealing with its affairs and reduce the powers of lawmakers to select a panel to write the constitution.
The proposal also would declare the armed forces the protector of "constitutional legitimacy," wording that is widely interpreted to mean giving the military final say over major national policies.
It says 80 of the 100-member panel to be mandated to write the new constitution will not be chosen by lawmakers and will instead be drawn from a wide range of institutions, including the judiciary, universities and civil society groups. The rest will come from political groups represented in parliament's two chambers.
The intensely publicized dispute over the proposal is the latest to plague Egypt's problematic transition to civilian rule following Mubarak's ouster in February by a popular uprising. Critics say the document would create a military state-within-the-state and devalue the democratic system the generals vowed to install when they took over from Mubarak.
The dispute already has poisoned the political climate ahead of the Nov. 28 election for a new parliament. Islamists are expected to dominate the vote, the first legislative balloting since the end of Mubarak's 29-year rule. The proposal is designed at least in part to deny the Islamists too much influence over the constitution, something that some secular and left-leaning politicians and minority Christians are supporting to avoid a document with an Islamist slant.
Faced with fierce criticism, Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Salmy, who authored the proposal at the military's apparent behest, defended the draft Thursday, saying it would not be finalized before an exhaustive debate is completed.
In comments carried by Egypt's official news agency, he said he would continue to seek political consensus for the document and planned to call for another meeting with representatives of parties, trade unions and civil society groups to discuss its contents. The first such meeting, held Tuesday, ended with some participants rejecting it outright, while some walked out in protest or refused to attend.
The Muslim Brotherhood and other groups also have called for massive street demonstrations Nov. 18 to protest the document, but such calls have in recent months failed to bring out respectable numbers.
However, Islamists have an impressive record in mobilizing their supporters.
"We must acknowledge our defeat in this battle," said rights lawyer Negad Borai.
"We must now collect our remains and start all over again. The struggle against dictatorship will be long. Our enemy is ferocious and dangerous," he said of the generals on the military council.
The proposed guidelines for the drafting of the constitution were first floated in the summer by judicial experts linked to the military. As they are now, they were met then by a flurry of criticism that forced their proponents to shelve them.
That they are back now in the realm of national debate suggests that the military is not prepared to give up on trying to carve itself a role that would allow it guardianship over the nation even when a new parliament and president are elected.
The military has dominated Egypt since officers seized power in a 1952 coup. All of Egypt's four presidents have since hailed from the military, and most of the top jobs at strategically located provinces, regional councils and state organizations are filled by retired generals.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Egypt's military ruler, has fueled speculation he might seek the presidency when he went last month on a stroll through downtown Cairo in civilian attire, shaking hands and patting shoulders.
Last week, posters briefly appeared in Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria supporting Tantawi as a future president. But the military has denied it has any intention of staying in power or field its own candidate in a presidential election. Its critics, however, say it is difficult to imagine the military willingly giving up 60 years of domination.
The military's attempt to enshrine a political role for itself follows what many Egyptians call the "Turkish model," a reference to the guardianship of Turkey's military over politics in the 1980s and 1990s that ended years of political instability in that NATO member.
However, Middle East expert Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a commentary posted Thursday on the Internet that the drive by Egypt's ruling generals to emulate the Turkish model was bound to fail because they do not have a direct role in drafting the constitution, do not enjoy the support of a broad segment of the political elite and are too concerned about "the preservation of their own status and economic interests."
Separately, U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor, who is coordinating assistance to Middle East nations in transition, said he believes the generals want to hand over political power but could speed up the process significantly. He said the supreme council is "uncomfortable governing," adding that a presidential campaign should run parallel to the process of writing the constitution, instead of following the election.
The uproar over the draft proposal came after the arrest this week by the military of one of Egypt's best-known bloggers and activists for his alleged role in sectarian clashes on Oct. 9 in which 27 people, mostly Christians, were killed and hundreds were wounded. He is accused of inciting the violence, damaging military property and assaulting on-duty soldiers.
The arrest of Alaa Abdel-Fattah sent shock waves through the community of activists and pro-reform groups. They said the move showed a systematic campaign to discredit them as the generals build their own image as Egypt's foremost patriots. Abdel-Fattah's appeal of his 15-day detention was rejected Thursday.
The violence was the worst since Mubarak's ouster, and the controversy over whom to blame for the bloodshed has signaled a new low in relations between the military and activists. They blame the troops for starting the violence and army vehicles of running over protesters. The military denies the charge, insisting that troops deployed to deal with a Christian protest had no ammunition or firearms.
The violence and Abdel-Fattah's arrest are part of several issues that have strained relations between the military and political activists. They accuse the ruling generals of human rights violations, ignoring calls at home and abroad for stopping trials of civilians before military tribunals _ at least 12,000 since February _ and of making major policy decisions without consultations.
Activists said that, in pushing for a political role, the military was taking advantage of the growing disillusionment in post-Mubarak Egypt. Strikes, near daily protests, a surge in crime and rising prices have pushed many to long for stability, even at the expense of freedom or democracy.
"Our impression is that the people are fatigued and want things to return to where they were before," said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent rights activist. "Generally, people support the military council, which seems to believe that the opposition to its rule is restricted to a small elite minority."
However, Bahgat and others believe that the military's popularity will rapidly recede if its failure to revive the economy and restore security continues much longer.