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Egypt Presidential Elections Preparations Speeded Up

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EGYPT PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS
An Egyptian protester flashes the V for 'victory' sign as he stands in a cloud of tear gas during clashes with riot police near the central Tahrir square in Cairo on February 5, 2012 as deadly clashes raged into a fourth day and the interior minister leapt to the defense of his reviled forces. (MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images) | Getty Images

CAIRO — Egypt's military leader told electoral officials Monday to speed preparations for presidential elections after a new eruption of street protests demanding that the ruling generals move more quickly to hand power to an elected government.

The military rulers had previously promised to hold presidential elections for their successor by the end of June. But Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council, asked election commission officials "to quickly finish legal procedures for presidency nominations," according to Egypt's state-run news agency MENA.

Election Commission Chief Abdel-Moez Ibrahim told The Associated Press that based on Tantawi's orders, nominations for president would be accepted March 10, a month earlier than the original date. He didn't give a date for elections, but it was an indication that the vote may be held about a month ahead of schedule.

The ruling council pledged "to hand power to an elected civilian authority in a democratic, transparent and honest way."

Relations between the pro-democracy movement behind Egypt's uprising last year and the ruling generals who took power from ousted President Hosni Mubarak have grown increasingly hostile, punctuated by bouts of rioting, clashes and killings. The protesters have long called for an immediate transfer of power to a civilian authority and accuse the generals of bungling what was supposed to be a transition to democracy.

Egypt has already held parliamentary elections which were the freest and the fairest in decades and propelled Islamists to dominance. But power in the country has traditionally been concentrated in the hands of the executive.

The protests against the military rulers erupted anew after a deadly riot at a soccer stadium in Port Said on Thursday, when 74 people were killed. Protesters accused the police of doing nothing to stop the violence and that set off a new cycle of clashes that has killed 13 people in five days. One protester was killed Monday in Cairo, said Dr. Malek el-Assal at a field hospital.

On top of the domestic turmoil, Egypt is also embroiled in a new crisis with the United States, which is threatening to cut off $1.5 billion in annual aid because of a crackdown on Egyptian and foreign nonprofit groups promoting democracy and human rights. The ruling military accuses the groups of using foreign funding to foment unrest.

The crisis escalated on Sunday when authorities referred 43 employees of nonprofit groups, including 19 Americans, to trial. On Monday, they released names of the 19 Americans who will be tried, including the son of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Out of the 19, only six are in the country.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that several more activists have joined the ones who sought shelter at the U.S. Embassy as the crisis developed. She said the embassy is extending an invitation to all who are affected "to give them some time to consider their options with their lawyers." She did not say how many activists are at the embassy.

Washington has reacted angrily to the case, which started with raids last month on the offices of the groups. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has warned it could jeopardize U.S. aid to Egypt, which amounts to more than $1 billion a year.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the Americans involved in the dispute have been working to build a more democratic society in Egypt and "have done absolutely nothing wrong."

She told "CBS This Morning" that U.S. officials have been in close touch with the Egyptian government, including "in the last days and hours." She said the situation "has serious consequences for our bilateral relationship."

Laws requiring local and foreign civil society groups to register with the government have long been a source of contention, with rights activists accusing authorities of using legal provisions to go after groups critical of their policies. Offenders can be sentenced to prison if convicted.

Legally, the Social Solidarity Ministry must approve any foreign funds funneled to local or foreign civil society groups in Egypt.

The investigation into the work of the nonprofit groups is closely linked to the political turmoil that has engulfed the nation since the ouster one year ago of Mubarak, a U.S. ally who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years.

The military rulers charge that the groups fund and support anti-government protests and claim "foreign hands" are behind the opposition to their rule. They frequently depict the protesters as receiving funds from abroad in a plot to destabilize the country.

In unrest on Monday, witnesses and field hospital doctors said police escalated their crackdown on protesters starting at dawn. Armored vehicles with police swept through streets near the Interior Ministry in downtown Cairo, shooting at protesters with birdshot and tear gas, witnesses said.

One protester was killed and nearly 200 were injured by birdshot.

During a heated parliament session, a lawmaker held an empty case of bullets to show police firing at protesters despite top security officials' denials.

At midday, volunteers formed human cordons at the entrances of streets leading to the ministry, which the military had already blocked with concrete walls to prevent renewed clashes. The Interior Ministry oversees the hated police and has been a frequent target of protests.

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Additional reporting by Bradley Klapper in Washington.

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