CAIRO Mohamed ElBaradei pulled out of the race to become Egyptian president on Saturday, the Nobel Peace Prize winner saying "the previous regime" was still running the country which has been governed by army generals since Hosni Mubarak was deposed.
"My conscience does not permit me to run for the presidency or any other official position unless it is within a real democratic system," said the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, once seen a frontrunner for the post Mubarak held for three decades.
ElBaradei has been a vocal critic of the military council which has been governing Egypt since Mubarak was toppled in February, swept from power by mass protests that were driven by demands for accountable and democratic government.
The military council's opponents say it is seeking to preserve power and privilege in the post-Mubarak era and do not believe the generals' repeated promises that they will surrender power to civilian rule at the end of June.
A favourite of Egyptian liberals and initially seen as a leading candidate, the withdrawal of the International Atomic Energy Agency's head until 2009 was, in part, an admission that he could not win, experts said.
"ElBaradei acknowledges he may not have the grassroots support to win in this presidential election," said political analyst and activist Hassan Nafaa. "He also realizes that the next president will not have full powers and will be bound by the current system," he added.
"By pulling out of the presidential race, he is aligning himself with the youth movement and the liberals, who have been sidelined in the interim process by Islamists."
The bespectacled lawyer's campaign had been weakened by divisions. In November, some of his campaign staff quit, saying he had become cut off from his grassroots base.
ElBaradei took aim at the way the transition was being managed. "The randomness and the mismanagement of the transitional period are pushing the country away from the aims of the revolution," he said in a statement.
His remarks added to a recent wave of criticism targeting the generals. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said this week they looked unlikely to surrender all of their powers by the middle of the year, as promised.
His Carter Center, which has been monitoring the legislative elections, said the council's lack of transparency had created "uncertainty about their commitment to full civilian leadership."
Headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the man who was Mubarak's defense minister for two decades, the military council says it has no interest in government and is working to move Egypt towards democracy.
BROTHERHOOD MEETS PM
Egypt's strongest political force, Islamist groups, have dominated elections for the lower house of parliament which got underway in November and are now coming to a close.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, says it has won 46 percent of the seats, with the more hardline Nour Party winning some 23 percent of the seats. The Brotherhood, entering politics in the shape of the Freedom and Justice Party, supports the military council's transition plan.
FJP leaders on Saturday discussed their legislative agenda with Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri, appointed by the council in November. The FJP says it will work with the Ganzouri government, due to stay in office until the middle of the year.
"We aim to find common ground between the government and parliament," Saad el-Katatni, the FJP secretary-general, told Reuters, adding: "We have not decided on who we will join forces with once parliament convenes."
One of Egypt's main liberal political parties said on Monday it would boycott upper house elections later this month in protest against what it says were violations committed by Islamist parties in earlier voting rounds.
ElBaradei said he would now work to help Egypt's youth become part of the political process.
Reflecting on the achievements of the uprising, he said: "The most important gain is that the barrier of fear has been broken and that the people have regained their faith that they are capable of change."
In a move typically undertaken by a head of state, Tantawi will go to Libya on Monday, his first diplomatic mission since the end of parliamentary elections. An official source told Reuters Tantawi plans more diplomatic missions in the region.
There has been speculation that the army chief might run for president, effectively extending the army's grip on power. A campaign backing him for president was launched in October. Tantawi has denied any such plan.
(Additional reporting by Lin Noueihed; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Matthew Jones and Ben Harding)