By Marwa Awad
CAIRO (Reuters) - There was a time when Islamist lawyer Hazem Salah Abu Ismail's toughest challenge was brokering business deals and marriages. Now he is trying to bring his conflict resolution skills to the power struggle playing out in the new Egypt.
With his long white beard and wearing a suit and tie, the 50-year-old presidential hopeful sits in his office in the middle-class neighborhood of Dokki in Cairo reflecting on ways, however unpalatable, to break the military's hold on power.
Abu Ismail is running for president in an election due by the end of June, banking on his base in the ultra-conservative Salafi movement, estimated to have 3 million supporters.
The mosque preacher, known to millions of Egyptians from his frequent appearances on religious television shows, has no formal post in any Salafi or other political party. He was a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood Islamist group.
Salafi youth supporters in Cairo's Tahrir square, the hub of the 18-day uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, call him the "sheikh-president."
As Egyptians prepare to mark the first anniversary of the revolt, many view the generals who replaced Mubarak as a vestige of the old order who must quit like their former commander.
But a transition to civilian rule cannot be achieved without easing the concerns of the army, which is likely to cling to power without guarantees of immunity, Abu Ismail told Reuters.
"The pragmatic solution is to reconcile the power of the people with that of the military, which has arms, a network of interests and international support," he said in an interview.
"My blood boils as I say this ... but this is the way to encourage the army to leave the country to the people. Otherwise the army will continue to use political coercion," he added.
Public anger has been mounting against the military, accused of mismanaging the transition period and blamed for a series of violent clashes with protesters demanding an end to army rule.
Dozens of protesters and some soldiers and police have been killed in bouts of violence in the past 11 months.
All Egypt's rulers have come from the army since a 1952 coup against the monarchy. The military is bent on keeping its internal budget and business interests from civilian oversight.
"SAFE EXIT" FOR RULING GENERALS
"The military council fears leaving power and being held accountable afterwards. The 'safe exit' agreement is a guarantee to the generals they will have immunity after ceding power," Abu Ismail said.
Giving the commanders immunity could entrench an already existing split between political parties and the youth movement.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, set to gain two thirds of parliamentary seats after a phased election ends this week, may well seek an accommodation with the army to ensure that it cedes power smoothly later in the year, analysts say.
But such pragmatism may offend the families of those killed in street confrontations with the military. The military, which blamed the violence on "foreign hands," has also been criticized for maltreating women protesters.
A "safe exit" would legally mean giving the army a chance to declare and keep its wealth, as well as get a blanket amnesty for any past misdeeds or mistakes in the transition period.
Abu Ismail said the families of about 100 people killed in clashes with the army would not be forced to accept compensation under the plan, and could to see seek justice in court if they wished to.
"It is enough that we are willing to offer the safe exit, to overlook the past to save the future. But we will not lose what is coming," said Abu Ismail, clenching his fists.
Offering the generals guarantees was first proposed in May by some jurists and politicians as a route to civilian rule.
They said the army was posing as the revolution's defender while rolling back its gains and keeping intact the pillars of Mubarak's system, such as the judiciary and security forces.
Abu Ismail has been the army's most outspoken Islamist critic, helping rally thousands to Tahrir on November 18 to pressure the military to scrap a constitutional proposal that would have permanently shielded the army from civilian oversight.
Abu Ismail, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is very popular with Salafis, said he was a mediator who would try to unite the Islamists poised to dominate the new parliament.
The Muslim Brotherhood, keen to project a pragmatic image, is wary of allying with the radical Salafis in parliament.
"The Brotherhood and the Salafis think they are different but that is an illusion," Abu Ismail said. "One is ahead of the other politically, but both are in parliament now. They are better off forming a majority bloc."
Even the three declared Islamist presidential contenders should agree that only one of them actually runs, he said, adding that he had not decided whether to stay in the race.
"Politically, it is better for Islamists to agree on one presidential candidate and not split their votes over three."
Should he quit, analysts say Abu Ismail's support will be vital to mobilize Salafis behind his choice for president.
Either way, Abu Ismail vows to ensure that Egypt's next leader will be no tool of the military, saying he would oppose presidential polls if the army tries to impose its will on the constitution due to be drafted before the presidential vote.
"We will not have a puppet president," he declared. "I am willing to go to the street and fight for this. The president has to be responsible for appointing the minister of defense, just like in the United States or France."
(Writing by Marwa Awad)