CAIRO - The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is leading Egypt's staggered parliamentary election, came out on Thursday against bringing forward a presidential vote to end military rule, saying changing the timetable would wreak chaos.

Protesters who fought soldiers and police in central Cairo for five days before calm was restored this week want the army to cede power more swiftly.

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Many Egyptians, suspicious of the military's stated commitment to democratic change, want a presidential vote by Jan. 25, the first anniversary of the start of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak. The vote is now planned for mid-2012.

Activists plan a mass march to Tahrir Square on Friday to protest against army rule and the latest violence, which Egypt's prime minister said had contributed to billions of dollars of losses to the economy.

The once banned Brotherhood, keen to seal its place in mainstream Egyptian politics via the six-week parliamentary vote after generations of state repression, kept a low profile during the latest clashes in Tahrir Square that killed 15 people.

Essam el-Erian, deputy head of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which had the most candidates fielded in second-round runoff votes on Thursday, said his group backed the army timetable to hand power to an elected president by July.

"I think that is better than arranging it as soon as possible because this may create chaos," he told Reuters.

He said holding a presidential vote before both houses of parliament were elected and able to draw up a new constitution risked handing too much power to a new president. "We are not going to create a new Mubarak," he said.

Elections to both houses will not be completed until March.

Protesters, who have stayed out in Tahrir since Nov. 18 despite several charges by police to clear the square, are angry at the army's fierce treatment of demonstrators and believe the military high command is trying to cling to power.

Many activists accuse the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists of betraying the protesters' demands by focusing on securing their own positions in the new power structure.

But analysts say an earlier presidential election would not necessarily eliminate the military's predominance in a new civilian-governed state, because all the viable candidates would likely have to have good relations with the generals.

They include Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and ex-head of the Arab League. He, like some other candidates, has joined a consultative council to advise the army, although the body suspended its activities in protest over the violence.

A transitional period

A source close to the army told Reuters a popular mandate would not be enough to support Egypt's next president because it would also need the backing of the military establishment.

"This is a transitional period where one party hands power to another. A deal must be struck. This is politics," he said.

The violence of the past days, and an earlier flare-up in November when 42 people were killed, have shocked many Egyptians, although many still regard the army as the only institution capable of restoring order after months of turmoil since February, when Mubarak was ejected by a popular uprising.

Army-backed Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, appointed in November under pressure from protests to sack the previous government, outlined the challenges and appealed for unity at a news conference. His cabinet was appointed this month.

"I had wished that after two weeks, I would come and tell you about what we have achieved ... but I cannot," he said.

"Is this not of itself a testimony to the fact that we are facing a real problem and that we must sit down together and discuss it?" Ganzouri said. "The economic situation requires that we have consensus and dialogue."

He said that the economy had lost billions of dollars from the turmoil, but had received only $1 billion from Arab states, while world powers had not followed through on aid pledges. He said differences among Egyptians were to blame.

"In the first months (after the uprising), everyone raced to help Egypt, but when we disagreed among each other in the past few months, they turned their backs on us," he said.

The clashes in Cairo have driven a wedge between those determined to stay on the streets and other Egyptians desperate for a return to order to shore up the economy and entice back foreign tourists.

But many have been shocked by images of police and soldiers hitting protesters with batons even after they fell to the ground and, in one case, kicking, beating and dragging a woman by her black robe, exposing her bra, and then kicking her.

"I do not blame anyone nor do I defend anyone, I hope that everyone seeks to remove the appearance of violence. How can the state of Egypt, at the center of its capital, have these depressing events?" Ganzouri said.

"Is it not necessary for us to decide as a people that this must be eliminated, so the tourist may come back, so the joy of the Egyptian people may come back?"

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week responded with some of the strongest US criticism of Egypt's new rulers, citing cases of women protesters being sexually assaulted.

The United States, for which Egypt under Mubarak was a crucial ally, gives Cairo $1.3 billion a year in military aid.

Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said on Wednesday that Egypt would not accept meddling in its affairs, and did not take comments such as Clinton's lightly. Ganzouri condemned all forms of violence, particularly any directed at women.

Egypt's economy continues to take a beating. The credit rating agency Moody's downgraded Egypt's debt on Wednesday and said it might knock it down another notch because political uncertainty was undermining investor confidence.

A large number of the individual - rather than party list - seats up for grabs in the run-offs were being contested between Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-Islamist Salafi candidates.

Run-offs are held after each of the three rounds of the vote where no candidate received more than 50 percent to win outright. Egypt's system involves allocating two-thirds of seats of party lists with the rest going to individuals.

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