CAIRO Egypt's government is likely to call a presidential election before parliamentary polls, officials said on Monday, rearranging the political timetable in a way that could see army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi elected head of state by April.
Parliamentary elections were supposed to happen first under the roadmap unveiled after the army deposed Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July after mass protests against his rule.
But critics have campaigned for a change, saying the country needs an elected leader to direct government at a time of economic and political crisis and to forge a political alliance before a potentially divisive parliamentary election.
Opponents say it risks creating a president with unchecked power. Were that Sisi, who is widely tipped to win the vote, it would restore the army's sway over a post controlled by military men until Mursi was propelled to office last year by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Sisi's Islamist opponents view him as the mastermind of a military coup and a crackdown that has killed hundreds of Mursi's supporters and jailed thousands more.
In further unrest, one person was killed and five others were wounded on Monday in the Mediterranean town of Damietta in clashes between opponents and supporters of Mursi. Such incidents have taken place almost daily since Mursi was removed.
In Cairo, a court sentenced 139 Brotherhood members to two years in jail and a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($720) each for engaging in violent actions, protesting and rioting.
The Interior Ministry said it arrested 15 pro-Brotherhood female students in Al-Azhar University for Islamic Learning for causing chaos and inciting violence.
The university has been a main stage of violent protests since the start of its fall semester in September. Nine Azhar students have been killed in clashes with the police since then, of whom three died on Friday and Saturday after the government designated the Brotherhood group a terrorist organisation.
That announcement came after 16 people were killed in a suicide attack on a police station in the Nile Delta last Tuesday, an attack the Brotherhood condemned and blamed on a radical faction based in the Sinai Peninsula.
SISI YET TO DECLARE PRESIDENTIAL BID
A draft constitution concluded on December 1 opened the way for a change in the order of the elections by leaving open the question of which should come first.
Secular-leaning politicians who want the presidential election before the parliamentary polls lobbied interim head of state Adly Mansour during four recent meetings, according to officials familiar with what was discussed.
"The forces that attended the four meetings agreed, with a large percentage, to have the presidential elections first and that means that most likely the presidential elections will be first," said one of the officials.
An army official added: "Presidential elections are most likely to be held first, as it seems to be the demand of most parties so far."
Holding the presidential election first would "accelerate the process of bringing Sisi as head of state", said Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayid, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
"The people who are pushing for a change are doing so because they would like to have him as head of state."
Sisi, 59, has yet to announce his candidacy. An army official familiar with his thinking said last week he was still undecided as he weighs up the manifold problems facing a country in deep economic crisis.
But he may have no choice. His supporters see Sisi as the only man able to restore stability after three years of turmoil.
And analysts say the powerful security apparatus will be putting pressure on him to run as it presses a crackdown on the Brotherhood and combats militant attacks that have spiralled since Mursi's overthrow.
There have been three bombings in the last week, the bloodiest of them an attack on a police station that killed 16 people in the city of Mansoura, north of Cairo. The state blamed the Brotherhood, which condemned the attack. A radical Islamist group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility.
The Brotherhood won five elections after Mubarak's downfall in 2011. It is boycotting the army's political roadmap.
In an interview broadcast late on Sunday, interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi sidestepped a question on whether the presidential election would be held ahead of the parliamentary vote, saying the focus should be on the forthcoming referendum.
The referendum has been set for January 14-15.
The draft says steps towards holding the first of the elections should be begin no later than 90 days from the ratification of the constitution. Mansour said on Sunday the government was committed to holding both presidential and parliamentary elections within six months of its approval.
The Islamist Nour Party, which came second to the Brotherhood in the last parliamentary elections, had said secular parties wanted to push back the parliamentary election because they were worried about losing to Islamists again.
The Nour, an ultraorthodox Salafi party, supported the removal of Mursi. Sherif Taha, the party spokesman, said the Nour would not object to holding the presidential election first if that was the result of "consensus".
He also said the government must offer clear guarantees that the parliamentary election would follow.
In Washington, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel voiced concern about developments in Egypt in a call to Sisi. He stressed the need for political inclusiveness, a Pentagon spokesman said.
"Secretary Hagel also expressed concerns about the political climate in advance of the constitutional referendum, including the continued enforcement of a restrictive demonstrations law," he said.($1 = 6.9386 Egyptian pounds)
(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Ali Abdelatti; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)