CAIRO (Reuters) - Nine months after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and days before its first free election in decades, Egypt has been convulsed by protests over the ruling military council's handling of the transition to civilian rule.
Below are some questions and answers about the protests:
* WHAT SPARKED THE DEMONSTRATIONS?
Frustration about the army's commitment to the handover to civilian rule has built up in the last few months. Politicians and activists have grown increasingly suspicious that the military council, which took over from Mubarak on February 11, wants to hand over day-to-day government but retain broad powers that could undermine civilian authority in future.
The latest unrest began on November 18 with a protest led by Islamists against proposals from the army-picked cabinet for constitutional provisions that would shield the military from civilian scrutiny and given it a broad national security remit.
But youthful activists, along with a more violent fringe, have dominated the demonstrations of the past four days, which were sparked by an incident on Saturday when police forcibly dispersed relatives of people killed in the anti-Mubarak revolt.
Harsh police tactics like those used in Mubarak's era have fuelled anger and convinced many protesters that the generals who served the former president have hijacked their revolution.
* WHAT WILL APPEASE THE PROTESTERS?
The most common chants are "Down, down with military rule" and "The people want to topple the marshal," a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defence minister for two decades who heads the ruling army council.
But unlike protests against Mubarak, demands are more diverse than simply wanting Tantawi to step down. Some want a national salvation government to run day-to-day affairs. Others demand that the military council is replaced by a civilian presidential council to manage Egypt's transition to democracy.
Some also seek a presidential election by April, much earlier than under the military timetable that would leave the army council in charge until late 2012 or early 2013.
Demonstrators are unlikely to pack up until the army adopts a clear countdown to handing over power within months, rather than a year or more. If protests gather momentum, demands may grow for the resignation of Tantawi or other generals.
But military commanders cannot satisfy the protesters just by changing the face at the top and abandoning Tantawi, as they abandoned Mubarak, who had risen himself from the general staff to the presidency. At stake is whether the armed forces loosen a six-decade-old grip and let civilians take over for the first time since military officers ousted the king in 1952.
Some analysts believe the army's response to its critics has been "too little, too late" -- just as Mubarak's was.
* WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE PARLIAMENTARY ELECTION?
The army, Islamists and most politicians agree that the parliamentary election should be held on time. The three-phase vote for the lower house starts on November 28 and runs until January. But recent violence raises questions about whether the army and the discredited police force can secure the vote so that it delivers a result the public will accept as legitimate.
The election will not end the power struggle with the army, which retains executive authority, including powers to appoint the cabinet. But the new parliament will have a legislative role, will appoint the 100-strong assembly to draw up a new constitution and will carry a moral weight as Egypt's first democratic body that will be difficult for the army to ignore.
Delaying the election risks enraging politicians, especially Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood expects to do well at the polls and is determined to secure its place in mainstream politics after years of oppression under Mubarak.
* HOW BROAD IS SUPPORT FOR PROTESTERS?
Numbers have steadily grown in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the most closely watched barometer for the national mood. But crowds have been in the tens of thousands at most, not the hundreds of thousands who poured into the square to demand Mubarak go.
Protests have taken place elsewhere, including the second city of Alexandria and eastern cities of Ismailia and Suez, scene of some of the worst violence in January and February.
Yet, in contrast to the anti-Mubarak uprising, the nation has not ground to a halt. A few streets back from Tahrir, ordinary Egyptians go back and forth to work clutching handkerchiefs to their faces to fend off tear gas.
Judging by its modest concessions so far, the army may bet it can ride out the unrest because Tahrir has not overflowed and because many Egyptians are exhausted by the turmoil that has savaged an economy, both by disrupting trade and discouraging tourists. Yet analysts question such a calculation.
"There is growing feeling among people that the military is part of the problem, not part of the solution," said Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian analyst at Durham University in England.
* WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE MILITARY?
If pressure on the generals builds, frustration may grow in the lower ranks of officers, worried that the army's reputation could be indelibly tarnished. That might encourage rebellious elements, although diplomats say the army has so far proved cohesive.
Even if the military agrees to early presidential elections, hands over power and retreats to barracks, it has deep interests and huge resources that could keep it influential behind the scenes for years, whether such a role is enshrined in the constitution or not.
The army controls a substantial chunk of the economy with interests in factories, real estate and construction. Despite civilian demands for more transparency, its budget is likely to remain shielded from close scrutiny by parliament.
Many ordinary Egyptians still respect the military, even if their trust in the generals has waned. Meanwhile, Egypt's parties and politicians are still building the kind of grassroots support they would need to bring such a well-entrenched institution under a civilian commander-in-chief.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)