Egypt's military ruler warned of "extremely grave" consequences if the turbulent nation does not pull through its current crisis and urged voters to turn out for landmark parliamentary elections starting Monday.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi claimed "foreign hands" were behind the latest wave of unrest, an assertion similar to those made by Hosni Mubarak in his final days in power before he was ousted in a popular uprising in February. Tantawi was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years.
In comments carried by the nation's official news agency, Tantawi rejected calls for him and other generals on the ruling military council he heads to immediately step down.
The warning came as thousands of protesters were filling Cairo's Tahrir Square for another massive demonstration to push for him and the other generals to immediately return to their barracks in favor of a civilian presidential council and a "national salvation" government to run the country's affairs until a president is elected. It was the ninth straight day of a revival of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak. At least 41 protesters have been killed in and more than 2,000 have been wounded, most of them in Cairo.
The military took the reins of power when Mubarak was ousted. But it has come under intense criticism for most of the past nine months for its failure to restore security, stop the rapid worsening of the economy or introduce the far-reaching reforms called for by the youth groups behind Mubarak's fall and the ongoing protest movement.
Tantawi said the military will follow through with its somewhat vague road map for handing over power. The ruling council never set a precise date for transferring authority to an elected civilian administration, only pledging that presidential elections - the last step in the handover process - will be held before the end of June, 2012.
"We will not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections," he said. "Egypt is at a crossroads - either we succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be extremely grave and we will not allow that."
Tantawi also accused foreign powers he did not name of meddling in Egypt's affairs.
"None of this would have happened if there were no foreign hands," he said. "We will not allow a small minority of people who don't understand to harm Egypt's stability," he said, apparently alluding to the protesters in Tahrir, epicenter of the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Tantawi said that the parliamentary elections would be held as planned and stated that the army and police would secure polling stations and maintain public order. He noted that the military's position would not change after the elections.
Some protesters want Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, to head the new government.
ElBaradei said late Saturday he was ready to cancel his presidential bid in order to head such a government, if asked by the country's ruling council.
In the streets of Alexandria, a day before Egyptians are due to cast their first parliamentary vote since Mubarak's fall, parties and candidates are straining to garner voters.
While the government placed thousands of stalls with laptops enabling citizens to find out where they are to vote, many opposition activists fear violence near voting stations and other irregularities.
Hany Botros, the head of an Alexandrian engineering firm and a member of the Free Copts movement, said that he had received "promises from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that they will secure voting booths in order to prevent any injury against the election."
"I hope we can count on that since we know of elements that are interested in changing results," he said.
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