CAIRO — Egypt's military ruler vowed on Thursday not to step down until the council of generals he heads has "fulfilled its commitments," adding that the military does not benefit from prolonging its hold on power.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi's comments appeared designed to debunk claims by some politicians that he and the generals of the Supreme council of the Armed Forces had no intention of handing over power to a democratic government as they promised when they took over from President Hosni Mubarak, toppled nearly eight months ago in an 18-day uprising.
"We will not abandon Egypt before we finish what we pledged to do and committed ourselves to before the people," Tantawi told reporters in comments shown on state television and carried by the country's official news agency. "The military council has no interest in staying (in power) for a long time."
"Given the chance, the military council will step down tomorrow," he said.
Many activists in the youth groups that engineered the Egyptian uprising have accused Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, of being slow in dismantling the legacy of his former patron's 29-year rule and of not doing enough to stop the torture of detainees by the military.
They also accuse him of trying to steal credit for the popular uprising away from the hundreds of thousands of men and women who took to the streets across the nation during the revolt.
Last week, state television broadcast footage of Tantawi walking around downtown Cairo in civilian attire, giving rise to speculation that he might be considering a run for the country's top job. The military has given Egypt all of its four presidents since young officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the country's monarchy. It has since been Egypt's most powerful and secretive institution.
But on Wednesday, Tantawi denied that the military intended to nominate one of its own for the president's job.
"These are rumors that are not worthy of stopping to consider, and neither should we spend time talking about them," he said.
However, there are lucrative benefits the military could gain by holding on to power or at least have one of its men grab the country's top job.
There has been intense speculation that a civilian with a military background, like a retired general, would be the army's preferred choice for president. Such a figure would be loyal to the military, foiling, for example, any attempt to bring the armed forces and its budget under parliamentary scrutiny.
Alternately, the military could insist on a political role as a "guardian" of the nation in a new constitution due to be drafted next year, giving the top generals a collective say in all key policies.
Three Egyptian columnists and a film critic, meanwhile, withheld their regular commentaries in an independent daily on Wednesday to protest what they said was censorship by the country's military rulers.
The four — Belal Fadl, Omer Taher, Nagla Bedir and Tareq el-Shinawy — left their columns blank, publishing only a few words explaining their decision.
"I withhold my writing today to protest the barring, impounding of newspapers and the presence there of military censorship," the four wrote in place of their columns.
One of the four writers, Fadl, said the protest was meant to send a "symbolic message" that censorship was not the ideal way to deal with the press.
"It is no longer acceptable. The solution is to correct mistakes by allowing more freedom and to raise the professional standard of journalists," he told The Associated Press. "Our protest does not reflect a desire to have absolute freedom for the press without any controls."
The protest by the four coincides with growing criticism of the military's handling of Egypt during its transition period following Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster and dissatisfaction over a timetable floated by the ruling generals for handing over power to a civilian government.
The timetable has proposed presidential elections for the end of 2012, meaning the generals would be in power for nearly two years before they step down, rather than the six months they had initially set as a deadline when they took over from Mubarak. Parliamentary elections, the first since Mubarak's ouster, are scheduled to start on Nov. 28.
The four writers publish their daily columns in the independent Al-Tahrir, a post-Mubarak publication edited by Ibrahim Eissa, who has long been one of Mubarak's most vocal critics. Eissa, like the three columnists, has been critical of some of the military's policies. The newspaper is named after the central Cairo plaza that saw the birth of the anti-Mubarak uprising.
Authorities last week stopped the publication in an independent weekly newspaper of an article critical of Egypt's intelligence service, which is traditionally led by a military officer. The newspaper's editor, Abdel-Halim Qandil, said officers of the intelligence service halted the printing after the presses had begun running. Qandil said he replaced the offending article, but only after intelligence officers oversaw the destruction of some 100,000 copies.
The article was critical of the leadership of Mubarak's intelligence service under Omar Suleiman, a close confidant of the ousted president who was named vice president shortly before Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11. Suleiman is a career army officer.
Also last week, two other publications were subjected to censorship. One was ordered not to publish the second part of an investigative report claiming that Mubarak had instructed authorities to drop a case against an alleged Israeli spy. The second newspaper was ordered to remove a headline saying that Tahrir Square protesters wanted Tantawi removed.