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 an uprising.
The armed forces are not a state above the state and will not be, said presidential candidate and former U.N. 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 Egypt since a 1952 military coup and control a large swathe of the economy.
With Mubarak gone the military to brass 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 said they 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.
Meeting on Wednesday, a group of presidential candidates demanded that the ruling generals state their true intentions and announce a timetable for handing power to civilians.
The participants request this document be removed and invite the Egyptian people ... to stand up against it and protect their rights, said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, secretary-general of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party.
He called for a million-strong march on November 18 if their demand is not met.
Those who back the army's desire for autonomy say it could stop a power grab by Islamists. Opponents say the army is raising the spectre 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, whose leaders came late to the uprising against Mubarak but could now 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 put up posters across Cairo offering A party for all Egyptians, playing on fears that Islamists will sow strife in a country where some 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 advert in Egypt's main state newspaper al-Ahram on Wednesday offering a better tomorrow.
It showed a smiling middle-aged man in a moustache 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 sheets and ropes round a well-known statue of bare-breasted mermaids.
The statue was 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 cancel more elections.
They want you to be their prisoners, said Refaat el-Saeed, acting head of the leftist Tagammu party. Stand together and protect your country and your children. If they come to power, they won't leave it.