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Egypt’s military chief presses ahead with vote

By Ernesto Londoño,

CAIRO — Egypt’s ruling military leader Sunday called on Egyptians to vote in Monday’s parliamentary election, warning that a failed poll would have “grave consequences.”

Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi spoke defiantly, saying the military chiefs would not buckle under the pressure of tens of thousands of protesters demanding that the chiefs cede power to civilian leaders immediately.

He said the role of the armed forces, which have enjoyed a privileged status for decades, and virtually no oversight, would remain unchanged.

“The position of the armed forces will remain as it is,” Tantawi said in a televised speech. “It will not change in any new constitution.”

The remarks were likely to anger demonstrators who say the military chiefs have not followed through on their promise to oversee a transition to democratic rule.

An unarmed protester was killed Saturday morning in downtown Cairo after a police vehicle rammed into him during a demonstration, the latest in a string of deadly incidents that have plunged Egypt into a crisis on the eve of landmark parliamentary elections.

The death of Ahmed Sayed Sorour, 19, came as the country’s military chief, the main target of demonstrators’ wrath, reportedly held meetings with two leading opposition politicians in an apparent effort to defuse tensions.

The Interior Ministry apologized for the death, saying that the vehicle accidentally ran over Sorour after police came under attack outside the cabinet building. Sorour was participating in a sit-in to protest the appointment of a new cabinet led by Kamal el-Ganzouri, 78, a former prime minister who served under deposed president Hosni Mubarak.

The ministry statement said police had not sought to break up the sit-in, which demonstrators said was directed against what they saw as a new powerless cabinet subservient to Egypt’s interim military rulers. All members of the previous cabinet resigned earlier in the week after a wave of violent clashes in Cairo and other cities between riot police and security forces.

Officials and activists say more than 40 people have been killed since the unrest broke out a week ago. The bloodshed has overshadowed the parliamentary elections that are set to begin Monday and raised concerns of violence as polls open.

Egyptian state television reported Saturday that Egypt’s interim leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, has held meetings with the two men presumed to be presidential front-runners.

The reports did not provide details of the discussions with Amr Moussa, the former head of the Arab League, and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.

A coalition of protest groups has called for he creation of a “salvation government” led by ElBaradei, saying that the military council that took over after Mubarak’s ouster in February is attempting to hang on to power and has stifled dissent much as the old government did.

Protesters continued to set up tents in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday, saying they will hold their ground until Tantawi cedes authority to civilians. Tantawi has agreed to hold presidential elections by July.

Meanwhile, the three American college students detained during the clashes in Tahrir Square for allegedly lobbing Molotov cocktails at police flew to the United States. Luke Gates, 21, Derrik Sweeney, 19, and Gregory Porter, 19, were arrested Nov. 20. Porter arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on Saturday evening, the Associated Press reported. Gates, an Indiana University student, also arrived late Saturday, said a university spokesman who declined to identify the airport, AP said. Sweeney arrived in Washington late Saturday evening too, the AP reported.

Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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