Egypt's military rulers on Saturday floated a potential timetable for their exit from power. If the proposal is followed through, presidential elections could be held by late next year.
The proposal is not binding but is the closest thing to a schedule for a return to civilian rule after growing criticism of the generals' management of Egypt's turbulent post-uprising transition period.
The chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, discussed the plan with a number of political parties that had threatened to boycott parliamentary elections scheduled to start in late November if their demands for an amended election law went unheeded.
There have been growing calls from activists and political parties for the generals to set a clear timetable for an end to military rule, which began with Hosni Mubarak's February ouster in an 18-day popular uprising that shook the Arab world.
Over the nearly eight months since the generals took control, activists have accused the military of following many of the same hated practices of the Mubarak regime, including the physical abuse of detainees and making key decisions on its own.
The military council also failed to meet its initial pledge to return the country to civilian rule within six months and, along the way, shed the much-hated Mubarak-era emergency laws blamed for rampant human rights abuses under the old regime.
According to the state news agency MENA, Anan said the military council is not "seeking to prolong the transitional period. It is committed to a clear and precise timetable to transfer power after the election of a president."
Initial plans to hold presidential elections as early as next month have been scrapped, and distrust has grown as the generals appeared resistant to the wide-ranging changes the pro-democracy groups have been advocating.
"The military council is trying to absorb the public anger," said Ammar Ali Hassan, a political analyst.
The meeting was attended by only about a dozen of Egypt's nearly 50 political parties, meaning the debate over the plan is just beginning.
According to the plan discussed Saturday, the elected parliament would meet in late March or early April to choose a committee to draft a constitution. The document would be put to a public referendum within two weeks of its completion, which must happen by October.
Once approved, the door for presidential nominations would open, and a vote would be held within two months.
The plan would also allow international election monitors, after the generals had initially rejected the idea.
The proposals were announced a day after thousands of protesters across the nation pressed the generals to spell out a timetable for the end of the transitional period.
Mohammed el-Beltagy, a member of the Justice and Freedom Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the meeting laid the groundwork for a timetable, but that steps must be taken to ensure the dates are respected.
"We want to get out of the crisis and to keep the military council as a partner that keeps the conditions laid out by the revolution," he said.
In a sign that the tension over the political process is far from over, the generals made no immediate decision to end the emergency laws that give police unquestionable powers to detain and pressure activists. Instead, they said they would study the demands to scrap the Mubarak-era laws.
The laws have been in place since 1981, and are closely associated with much of the human rights abuse that was prevalent during Mubarak's nearly 30 years in power.
During the meeting, Anan agreed to amend a clause in a new parliamentary election law that was widely criticized. The article had denied political parties the right to nominate candidates for a third of the nearly 500 seats. Critics said it was a green light for former members of the now disbanded ruling party to run as independents and snap up a parliament bloc.
The generals also promised to stop sending civilians to military trials, a hotly criticized practice that sent more than 10,000 civilians to prisons in quick trials over the past eight months.
Tahani el-Gibali, the deputy head of Egypt's Constitutional Court, said the ongoing dialogue is "positive" and can help diffuse tension between the military and political players.
"There must be a qualitative transition in the political scene," she said.
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