Cairo: Opponents of Islamists declared a "life and death" battle for Egypt`s future as official campaigning began on Wednesday for parliamentary elections seen as vital for restoring stability after eight months of fragile military rule.
The winner could gain the first popular mandate in modern Egyptian history after decades of strongman rulers and secure a decisive role in drafting a new constitution -- the subject of power struggles between Islamists, liberals and the army.
Democracy campaigners fear the new parliament will count for little unless the army submits to civilian rule and a future president who will replace Hosni Mubarak, the president and ex-air force commander ousted in February in a popular uprising.
"The armed forces are not a state above the state and will not be," said presidential candidate and former UN nuclear watchdog Mohamed ElBaradei in a statement. "There is a difference between a democratic civilian state that guarantees the rights of man and military tutelage."
Army men have dominated the presidency since a 1952 military coup and control a large swathe of the economy.
With Mubarak gone, the military has pledged to yield power to civilians but many Egyptians suspect it will continue to operate the levers of power even after a new president is elected.
Officials from both Islamist and liberal parties walked out of a meeting with the government on Tuesday when Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Silmi circulated a document proposing principles for the constitution that would allow the army to defy an elected government.
The Muslim Brotherhood, one of Egypt`s most influential political groups, demanded Silmi step down and the government resign if it tries to set specific rules for the constitution.
"We consider this a usurpation of the right of the people to choose their own constitution," it said in a statement.
Supporters of granting the army the right to defy an elected government say it could stop a power grab by religious fanatics. Opponents say the army is raising the specter of an Islamist coup to keep its privileges.
Mubarak`s overthrow allowed Islamist groups with grass-roots support to enter formal politics and shattered the order built around his now disbanded National Democratic Party.
A plethora of smaller secular liberal and left-wing parties remain to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, which came late to the uprising against Mubarak and now stands to benefit most from the freedoms it brought.
The staggered parliamentary elections are due to begin on November 28 and will last until March, with different dates for different chambers and regions of the country.
Some secular parties have put aside major policy differences to join forces against the Islamists under the slogan "Together we will retain our right."
"The battle for parliament is a life or death one. It isn`t an electoral battle but a battle for Egypt and history," said Basel Adel of the Free Egyptians, a secular party funded partly by Christian business tycoon Naguib Sawiris.
Days before the official campaign, Free Egyptians filled Cairo`s streets with posters offering "A party for all Egyptians," playing on fears that Islamists will sow strife in a country where an estimated 10 percent of the population is Christian.
The Brotherhood, excluded from politics for decades under Mubarak, is now seeking support from mainstream voters. Its Freedom and Justice party put an ad Egypt`s main state newspaper al-Ahram on Wednesday offering "a better tomorrow."
The advert showed a smiling middle-aged man in a mustache standing with his wife and young daughter, both of them wearing headscarves.
The campaign is already turning into a clash of ideology rather than policy. Liberals see the Brotherhood`s vague manifesto as proof that it secretly wants an Islamic theocracy.
Other parties are also thin on detailed plans for dragging Egypt out of an economic slump and tackling widespread poverty.
Street campaigns by some Islamist parties focus on public morals as the answer to the problems of ordinary Egyptians.
Newspaper al-Masry al-Youm carried images from a meeting of the Salafist al-Nour party in Egypt`s second city Alexandria this week that showed party members wrapping a well-known statue featuring bare-breasted mermaids in sheets and ropes.
The statues were covered with a banner reading: "The Egyptian woman is she who gives her time to her husband and does not forget building her nation."
Nour officials denied they ordered the statues covered.
"These statues have been in the city forever and Salafists have been in Alexandria for decades and not one single incident of vandalism or destruction has taken place" said party spokesman Youssry Hammad.
Many secularists say Islamists who trumpet freedom in public secretly want to subvert it and would cancel further elections.