By Phil Stewart
CAIRO (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Wednesday praised the military rulers guiding Egypt after the toppling of ally Hosni Mubarak but tiptoed round a debate over when elections should be held.
Gates has been Washington's main point of contact with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the 75-year-old general commander of the armed forces who served as Mubarak's defense minister for two decades and who heads to military council now ruling Egypt.
Tantawi and Gates have spoken more than a half-dozen times by phone in the past two months, but Thursday will mark their first face-to-face meeting since Egypt's crisis erupted.
"From our very first conversation, the field marshal told me that the Egyptian army is of the people and that it would protect the people," Gates said in Cairo.
"And in everything that ensued he and the Egyptian army kept their word."
Gates is the second U.S. cabinet-level official to visit Egypt since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 after 30 years in power, as Washington tries to position itself as a partner to Egypt despite its long support for the authoritarian ruler.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited this month.
Washington provides Egypt's armed forces about $1.3 billion a year in assistance.
A senior U.S. defense official said the United States would quietly offer its help as Egypt moves toward elections, and pointed to U.S. organizations that help nascent political parties organize themselves.
"I think we all have to be conscious that we don't want to be seen as dictating or driving events. Because we're not," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Gates renewed Washington's concerns that Egyptians needed time to develop political parties, as he addressed reporters in Cairo.
But he steered clear of an Egyptian debate about the timetable the military has charted toward legislative elections as soon as September -- a timeline criticized as too tight by nascent political groups who want to get organized first.
Some opposition groups, crushed for decades by Mubarak, say the schedule favors the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood -- an Islamist group that was banned under Mubarak -- and remnants of Mubarak's ruling party.
"I'm absolutely not going to second-guess either the supreme council or the interim government," Gates said, after a meeting with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.
"I would simply say that we believe it is important to allow those new elements who have become active in Egyptian politics, some of them for the first time, to have the time to develop political parties."
That was key, he said, so they can play "the same kind of leading role in Egypt in the future that they played in bringing about this change in the first place."
Talks with Tantawi were also expected to focus on air strikes in Libya, home to more than a million Egyptians.
"The Egyptians obviously have great concerns not only because Libya's next door but because the number of Egyptians -- two million Egyptians in Libya," the same senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
(Editing by Alison Williams)