By Tamim Elyan and Marwa Awad
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's ruling generals said on Thursday they would press ahead with this month's presidential election despite fresh street violence and would step back from politics, although analysts said they would still pull strings after a formal handover.
The Arab world's most populous nation hit another bump in its rocky transition to democracy, just three weeks before the historic election, when armed men attacked protesters on Wednesday outside the Defence Ministry. Eleven people died.
Many protesters accused the army of priming the "thugs" to clear the anti-army demonstration on their doorstep, fuelling suspicions that the military wants to disrupt the vote, which starts on May 23-24, to prolong its stay in power.
The army, which says it will hand over to a new president at the end of June, or sooner in the unlikely event of a first round winner, insisted it would stick to its schedule at a news conference defending its actions.
"The armed forces and (its) Supreme Council are committed to handing over power before June 30," General Mohamed al-Assar said. To drive the point home, a banner in the room read: "The armed forces is bound by what it promised."
Three generals at the conference dismissed accusations the army wanted to cling to power and rebutted charges that soldiers attacked civilians, describing the military as the "shield of the people".
They listed the army's achievements since taking charge after Hosni Mubarak was ousted. They pointed to the parliamentary vote that ended in January and which was the first free election in Egypt in decades.
Assar said the army "took sides with the people" even in the days before Mubarak quit on February 11 last year.
Analysts say the generals want to quit day-to-day government where they have stumbled from one crisis to the next, sullying their reputation, but add that the military is not expected to cede the reins of power to the next president.
"In a transition of power to any president, whoever he is, I don't think the military apparatus will ever accept to be controlled by someone who is not from them," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians party. Mubarak, like his predecessors, was a military commander before being president.
Said attended a meeting hours after violence erupted near the Defence Ministry in Cairo on Wednesday, where he said generals assured politicians the election would be on time.
"It is not in their interest to stay," he said, but added that even after the handover "the army will still be in charge."
Wednesday's clashes drove home the challenge the army has ruling the nation of 80 million. Whoever was behind the violence, the army's failure to send troops till hours after bloodletting began looked clumsy at best, drawing rebukes.
"The situation in Abassyia spiraled out of control because of the mismanagement by the military council of the transition period," said Mohamed Bayoumy, 23, a Cairo travel agent.
But other Egyptians, tired of the turmoil, still heap the blame on protesters and said they should not have staged the protest outside the Defence Ministry. "I'm against those protests taking place there," said Nagy Ezzat, 59, engineer.
The generals warned protesters away from gathering at the Defence Ministry on Friday, when Islamists and other activists have called for demonstrations over Wednesday's clashes.
In the transition, Western diplomats say the army will be mainly concerned to protect its multi-billion dollar business interests, preserve army privileges and ensure generals are kept out of the courts, where Mubarak is now facing charges of killing demonstrators.
It will also want a big say in the direction of foreign policy - Egypt's peace treaty with Israel brings $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid each year - and other areas of "national security", a potentially broad remit to intervene, they add.
Diplomats say it could take years to disengage the military from politics and create an army that reports to elected civilian institutions.
Yet, even if it is a slow process - and far too slow for those who massed in Cairo's Tahrir Square to push Mubarak from office in February last year after 18 adrenalin-fuelled days of protests - the presidential vote will still be a milestone.
"Egypt is definitely witnessing a change in governance because no matter how weak the president maybe now, the gradual process of civilians reclaiming the republic has begun," said political analyst Mohamed Soffar.
However, the pace and progress of change may depend on who wins the presidential race. Among the 13 candidates, the two frontrunners former Arab League chief Amr Moussa who was also a foreign minister for Mubarak and Abdol Moneim Abol Fotouh, who has supporters ranging from liberals to hardline Salafi Muslims.
If either wins, it will mark a sea change in Egyptian politics by putting a civilian in charge. It may also prove an unnerving experience for the military.
For six decades, Egypt has been ruled by men pulled from military ranks, like Mubarak who was an air force commander. This meant the army could keep a distance from politics, confident that the top job was held by a man with a military mindset. It no longer has that assurance.
"I believe if someone like Amr Moussa will come, he will align with the army, they will have no problem with him, so they could empower him," said Said of the Free Egyptians.
However, Abol Fotouh, whose supporters include revolutionary-minded voters alongside Islamists, could create more tension although analysts say his broad appeal indicates he has a pragmatic streak that could help steady the relationship.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's biggest Islamist group, is also fielding a candidate, Mohamed Mursi, who has polled badly so far but cannot be ruled out because he also has the weight of the group's broad grassroots network behind him.
A Mursi victory, which for now looks unlikely, could bring more turbulence after the Brotherhood's relations with the army have become more strained over the group's calls to sack the army-appointed cabinet and a row over the make up of an assembly that will draw up a new constitution.
That row means a new constitution will not be in place when the new president is elected. General Mamdouh Shaheen said, in the absence of a new constitution, paragraphs on the president's powers could be added to an existing interim document the army wrote or an older constitution would be activated.
(Additional reporting by Sherine El Madany; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Myra MacDonald)