World alarm as Egyptian military tightens grip on power

The international community expressed its alarm at the Egyptian military's move to maintain its grip on power as the country waited to hear the results of a polarising presidential run-off election.

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JERUSALEM // The international community expressed its alarm yesterday at the Egyptian military's move to maintain its grip on power as the country waited to hear the results of a polarising presidential run-off election.

A Pentagon spokesman said the United States was "deeply concerned" and would urge Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to give up power after it issued a surprise decree assuming legislative powers and the right to intervene in constitutional matters.

"We're deeply concerned about new amendments to the constitution declaration, including the timing of their announcements as polls were closing for the presidential election," George Little said in Washington. He said that the US would "continue to urge the Scaf to relinquish power to civilian elected authorities".

Scaf announced the decision on Sunday only hours after polls closed, pitting Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, against the former premier, Ahmed Shafiq. Ahead of the official results on Thursday, both candidates are claiming narrow victories.

Last week, a court packed with judges appointed by the former president, Hosi Mubarak, dissolved the parliament that was freely elected after the uprising.

While welcoming the presidential run-off as an "major step" towards democracy, a spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, head of European Union foreign policy, also expressed concern about the Scaf decision.

"The legal and institutional situation is of concern and must be clarified as soon as possible," said Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson. "One thing is clear, the democratic transition must not be put in question."

She added that the Egyptian people "have the chance of choosing, for the first time, their president in a real and competitive election".

After mass demonstrations that forced the resignation 16 months ago of Mubarak, Egypt's transition to civilian rule looks as difficult as ever. Elements of Mubarak's regime have clung to power, alarming liberals and especially Islamists.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, along with the Salafist Nour Party, scored dramatic successes during last year's parliamentary election that seemingly hailed the beginning of Islamist rule in Egypt and the Arab world.

While their rise worried many among Egypt's diverse ideological spectrum, the revolution was no longer one that pit liberals and Islamists against each other, the Dubai-based Al Bayan newspaper said in an editorial yesterday.

"The conflict now has become much fiercer - and potentially more costly - strictly pitting the forces of the revolution against the 'felool', the remnants of the old regime."

That tension caused jitters among investors. Stocks slumped yesterday because, Wafik Dawook, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investment Security, "of the military's announcement, which puts Egypt in an open-ended transition period".

Those jitters may stick around for much longer, according to Salama Ahmed Salama, a columnist with the Cairo-based Al Shorouk newspaper, who wrote yesterday that broader "angst will be the order of the day" until Scaf and the future president sort things out.

"Now that the army council has grabbed the legislative power, it won't be easy for the forthcoming president to make them give it back in full right away," he wrote.

* With additional reporting by Bloomberg News and Agence France-Presse