The head of Egypt's armed forces Saturday rejected accusations that the military is throwing its weight behind a candidate in next month's presidential elections a day after thousands of people demonstrated against the ruling generals.
The statement from Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who leads the military council that has ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year, came a day after tens of thousands of Egyptians packed Cairo's Tahrir Square to denounce military rule. Protesters accused the generals of trying to manipulate the May presidential vote.
Speaking at a military training exercise Saturday, Tantawi said the armed forces are focused at the moment on handing power to an elected civilian government, not on hanging on to power. He also insisted the military was not picking favorites in the presidential race.
"The armed forces stand at an equal distance from all the parties without taking sides at the expense of another party," Tantawi was quoted as saying by the state news agency MENA.
He also said that the military was able to respond to insults with "violence from an iron fist," but that the military would not do so in order to keep Egypt safe. The military has over the past year used deadly violence to disperse protests against its rule.
The elections set to begin May 23 were intended to be a landmark in Egypt's transition: the first free choosing of a president after decades of authoritarian rule. After the president is installed, the military is to hand over the power it took after Mubarak's ouster by the end of June.
Tantawi has insisted, however, that Egypt's new constitution be written before the presidential vote, raising fears that the deadline to hand over power may be pushed back. The military, which has produced Egypt's last four presidents, is widely viewed as trying to avoid being subject to civilian oversight.
The field marshal's remarks Saturday aimed to counter allegations that the military wants to push a candidate it favors into the presidency to ensure its continued influence and block dramatic reform. This week, the election commission disqualified 10 candidates, including the top three contenders. The move enraged Islamists because among those excluded were the Brotherhood's nominee and a favorite of ultraconservatives known as Salafis.
Hundreds of supporters of the disqualified Salafi candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, rallied for a second day in Tahrir. They accused the military of pulling levers to eliminate Abu Ismail and boost support for former regime officials _ particularly former foreign minister and leading presidential candidate Amr Moussa.