CAIRO -- Egypt's new military rulers said on Tuesday they hoped to hand power over to an elected civilian leadership within six months and insisted they had no desire to keep control following the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.
The remarks carried on the state agency were the clearest indication since Mubarak was forced to leave Cairo on Friday that the high command had a concrete timeframe for meeting the demand of pro-democracy protesters for a complete new beginning.
Some secular leaders have raised concerns, however, that having presidential and parliamentary elections so quickly in a country where Mubarak had suppressed all opposition activity for 30 years may hand an advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement seen as the best organised political force.
"The Higher Military Council expressed its hope to hand over power within six months to a civilian authority and a president elected in a peaceful and free manner that expresses the views of the people," a statement on the state news agency MENA said.
"The council affirmed that it does not seek power, that the current situation was imposed on the armed forces and that they have the confidence of the people," it said.
MENA said the military also decreed that a committee headed by a respected independent judge, Tareq al-Bishry, should finish its work within 10 days on drafting amendments to the constitution. The plan is to then put these to a referendum.
Beyond Cairo's official buildings, Egypt paused for breath as the army sought to calm revolutionary fervour and get the country back to work. A dust storm deterred protests that have flared since Mubarak quit on Friday, and workers stayed at home on a public holiday for the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.
Facing a rash of pent-up labour demands from groups ranging from bank staff and tour guides to policemen and steelworkers, the new military rulers have urged people not to disrupt further an economy jolted by the 18-day uprising against Mubarak.
The military has held at least one round of talks with youthful activists at the forefront of the revolt to assure them they want a swift and smooth transition to democracy.
But with anger smouldering over rising prices, low wages and economic hardships that afflict many of Egypt's 80 million people, the military faces a delicate balancing act in accommodating demands unleashed by the "revolution on the Nile".
As the upheaval in Egypt sent shock waves around the Middle East, troubling global financial markets worried about oil supplies, there were clashes in Bahrain and Yemen, neighbours of the world's biggest oil exporter Saudi Arabia.
Thousands of Iranians opposed to their government rallied in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia on Monday.
Protests, sit-ins and strikes have broken out at state institutions across Egypt, including the stock exchange, textile and steel firms, media groups, the postal services and railways.
Raising wages and subsidies on basic goods are options the military could use to calm labour unrest, said analysts, though such measures would throw liberal economic reforms into reverse.
"There is this jubilation and exuberance of Egyptians, but the reality is there are more uncertainties than before," said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi.
Pro-democracy leaders say Egyptians will demonstrate again if their demands for radical change are not met. They plan a big "Victory March" on Friday to celebrate the revolution — and perhaps also to remind the military of the power of the street.
Uncertainty remains over how much influence the military will seek to exert in reshaping a corrupt and oppressive ruling system which it has propped up for six decades.
In Tahrir Square, the scene of bloody clashes between activists and police during the revolt, traffic flowed freely on Tuesday, directed by military policemen and traffic police as tow-trucks removed a couple of burned-out vehicles.
The army's tanks and armoured vehicles around the square and other Cairo locations have now been sandbagged into position.
The military has promised free and fair elections, suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, dismantling parts of the apparatus that kept Mubarak in power after he replaced Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamist radicals in 1981.
Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who had been detained for his part in the uprising, said military council members had told youth leaders that a referendum would be held on constitutional amendments in two months, a prelude to holding elections.
But an army source said the immediate priority was restoring security and reviving the economy. He called the two-month target for a vote on the constitution a "general time frame".
Existing political groupings are mostly weak and fragmented. The Muslim Brotherhood, which under the now-suspended constitution could not form a party, may be the best organised group but its true popularity has yet to be tested.
To placate pro-democracy activists, Egypt's army has pledged to lift a hated state of emergency in place throughout Mubarak's 30-year rule. Campaigners are impatient for this to happen soon.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Monday it was up to Egypt to decide when to lift the state of emergency.
In an interview with Al Jazeera television she noted that Washington had long called for the law's removal, but said: "It's not for me to counsel them. This is an Egyptian process that must be directed and defined by the Egyptian people."
"When the popular demand for the freedom to form parties is realised, the group will found a political party," said the Brotherhood in a new statement posted on the group's website.
The Brotherhood is an Islamist group founded in the 1920s with deep roots in Egypt's conservative Muslim society. Washington has expressed concern about its "anti-American rhetoric," saying "we have serious disagreements."
Mubarak, 82, has not been seen since he resigned. He is thought to be in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where some tourists are still holidaying despite the turmoil.
With Mubarak at his seaside residence, Egyptians traded rumors about his health. Some said he was in a coma and others that he had gone for medical treatment to Germany, where he had gall bladder surgery last March.
But a source close to his family said: "He's in Sharm. and I know for sure he's in good health and he is with his family."
The United States, Britain, and France said on Monday Egypt had asked them to freeze the assets of former officials. Paris and Washington said Mubarak was not on the list of officials.
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