Egypt's military rulers and Islamists both called Sunday on Egyptians to go to the polls for the country's first election since former president Hosny Mubarak's overthrow, as thousands of protesters gathered in central Cairo for one more rally against the junta.
The head of the ruling military council, Hussein Tantawi, pledged that parliamentary elections, scheduled for Monday, would not be postponed and would be taking place amid "maximum security."
"The elections will be held on time and I call on the great people of Egypt to go to the polls," he said on Sunday.
"Egypt is now at a crossroads. Either it will succeed politically, economically and socially or the consequences will be grave. But we will not allow this to happen," he added.
He also warned that the army would not allow "any tampering'" with the elections.
Tantawi agreed at a meeting with key politicians on Sunday to create a civilian council to advise the military during a transitional period that he pledged to end by July.
"This council will work with the [ruling] military council and the government," state television quoted potential presidential contender Selim al-Awa as saying after the meeting.
The talks - the second in two consecutive days - were attended by presidential hopefuls and political party leaders.
The move was an apparent attempt by Tantawi to placate protesters who on Sunday packed Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Mubarak revolt, demanding that military rulers transfer power to a civilian administration.
Protesters, who have now been camping in the iconic square for a week, are calling for the creation of a "National Salvation government," which would take over all powers from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
The protesters want Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former head of the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, to head the new government. El-Baradei said he was ready to cancel his presidential bid to head such a government, if asked by the country's ruling council.
But Tantawi insisted on Sunday that Kamal al-Ganzouri, who previously served under Mubarak, would lead the new cabinet - adding to tensions on the eve of the parliamentary vote.
"Protecting the elections is the task of not only the army and police, but the people too," state television quoted Tantawi as saying on Sunday.
Around 3,809 contenders are vying for 168 seats in the first round of polls, set to be held on Monday in nine of Egypt's 27 governorates, according to the government.
Supporters of the military rulers said on Sunday they would hold a rally to counter calls for the junta to step down.
The rally, the second in days, was to be held on Friday in eastern Cairo, according to organizers.
Meanwhile, Mohammed Badei, the head of the influential Muslim Brotherhood opposition group, urged Egyptians to go to the polls and vote "freely and honestly."
"To preserve the revolution and its gains, I call on all Egyptians to exercise their constitutional right and cast their ballots freely and honestly," he posted Sunday on Twitter.
Banned under Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to make big gains in the three-round elections.
Tareq al-Zumar, another Islamist leader, said his group would accept the results of the polls even if it did not win.
"We will never resort to violence as a way of objecting to losing," al-Zumar, the co-founder of the newly-formed Islamist Building and Development Party, told DPA.
Two weeks ago, the Islamist parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Muslims signed an "honor agreement" in order to avoid a split in the Islamist votes that would hinder efforts to defeat the liberal and secular factions.
The three-round elections are to run until January 10, with voting and runoffs to be conducted over a two-day period.
The eastern entrance to the city of Alexandria was blocked for hours on Sunday, after activists from rival political factions hurled rocks at each other. By Cairo's Heliopolis neighborhood, sectarian violence escalated into a full-fledged gun fight.
Participation in the election was declared mandatory, with Egypt's Ministry of Interior announcing that those who refrain from voting will be fined 500 Egyptian pounds, the equivalent of a month's salary for many Egyptians.
Regardless, many Tahrir Square protesters said they would ban the elections, with Najwa Ibrahim, an economics students, saying: "These aren't elections, just a sad joke."
"I don’t believe they will even be able to collect the fine," she added.
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