CAIRO Egypt's military ruler on Wednesday promised next week's presidential election would be free and fair, urging people to exercise their right to vote in what the authorities are saying will be the country's first genuine presidential contest.
Seeking to dispel fears that the military will rig the election in favor of a candidate it may prefer amid allegations it is meddling in politics, a military officer told Reuters Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi had made the remarks to troops at a military drill.
"Egypt's elections will be a model for the world for the free and fair will of the people," Tantawi said, according to a transcript of his remarks dictated by the officer who was there.
"I call on the Egyptian people to take up their national responsibility during the presidential elections to choose a president for Egypt," Tantawi said.
Troops would be deployed to ensure security at voting polls across the country, he added.
Voting start on May 23 and 24 and the army has pledged to hand power to the new president by July 1. It insists it is not siding with any candidate.
But many Egyptians believe it will remain an influential player behind the scenes for years to come and may seek to influence the vote.
Every president since the king was toppled in 1952 held a top military post before he was appointed, including Hosni Mubarak who was a former air force commander. Mubarak was ousted last year after big protests against his rule.
Only one of the candidates standing in the election, Ahmed Shafiq, has a military background. He also once led the air force.
Alongside Shafiq, who was also Mubarak's last prime minister, the other front-runners are ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa, Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, and Mohamed Mursi, a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt has never had a presidential vote that has been genuinely contested. Several candidates were disqualified in April, while two recent court verdicts challenged voting rules. Few international groups will monitor the vote compared to parliamentary elections.
The military dismissed public accusations that is was biased at a news conference earlier this month after violence erupted during protests against its rule.
"How could there be suspicion that the armed forces would rig presidential elections. Had we had such intentions we would have rigged the parliamentary ones," Maj. General Mohamed Assar said.
"We do not have interests with anyone," he added.
Candidates have said the military's privileged status will be abolished. But analysts say the next president will have little time to focus on reining in the army with more pressing domestic issues, such as stabilizing a battered economy and ensuring security.
(Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Editing by Andrew Osborn)