Egypt's top military official has made a rare public rebuke apparently directed at the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, declaring that the armed forces would not allow a "certain group" or "those pushed from outside" to dominate the country.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi's remarks on Sunday came hours after he met with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has used a two-day trip to Egypt to push for a full transfer to civilian authority in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi's victory at the polls last month.
Earlier during her visit, Clinton urged Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood, to "assert the full authority" of his office and said the military should return to a "purely national security role".
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Tantawi's comments, delivered to reporters after a ceremony in the city of Ismailia marking a change of leadership at the Second Army, sounded a discordant note after Clinton's urgings.
"Egypt will never fall. It belongs to all Egyptians and not to a certain group, the armed forces will not allow it,'' he said.
"The armed forces will not allow anyone, especially those pushed from outside, to distract it from its role as the protector of Egypt ... The army will never commit treason and will continue to perform its duties until Egypt reaches the shores of safety.''
Tantawi was the country's interim military ruler after President Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year ending three decades in power. He and the rest of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ran Egypt's affairs after Mubarak's ouster and remain in a political struggle with Morsi and the Brotherhood over how to direct the transition.
Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, was forced to accept dissolution of parliament by the military after court overturned his decision to reconvene the disbanded parliament dominated by Muslim Brotherhood and other salafist parties.
The SCAF also issued a unilateral package of interim constitutional amendments before Morsi was sworn in, granting the military legislative powers, veto over declaring war and budgetary autonomy, even as they officially handed power to Morsi on June 30.
US has 'little leverage'
Clinton's visit has been marked by various protests against perceived US meddling and urging her not to support the Brotherhood. On Sunday, a crowd threw tomatoes, shoes and plastic bottles at Clinton's motorcade as she departed the newly reopened US consulate in Alexandria.
Protesters chanted "Monica, Monica," in reference to Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who had an affair with Clinton's husband when he was president.
On Saturday, crowds gathered outside the Four Seasons hotel in Cairo where she was staying, holding up signs that told the United States not to support "jihadists" and a "theocracy".
Clinton has repeatedly called on the military to respect the outcome of the elections and told a news conference her talks with Tantawi would focus on "working to support the military's return to a purely national security role".
The two also discussed an economic package proposed by Clinton and "Tantawi stressed that this is what Egyptians need most now, help getting the economy back on track," the official said.
Clinton's discussions with Morsi on Saturday focused on the domestic political deadlock and economic development. She pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief, private investment and job creation funds - money the US administration had earlier promised.
Clinton said her country's "shared strategic interests far outnumber our differences" with Egypt.
"I have come to Cairo to re-affirm the strong support of the United States for the Egyptian people and their democratic transition," Clinton said at a joint news conference with Mohammed Amr, the foreign minister.
"We want to be a good partner and we want to support the democracy that has been achieved by the courage and sacrifice of the Egyptian people," she said. "Democracy is hard."
Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst, told Al Jazeera that Clinton was in a difficult situation and that the United States had little leverage.
"What the secretary of state clearly wants to do is demonstrate Washington's support for a full democratic transition in Egypt. But of course she has to walk a tight line here," he said.
"The SCAF remains very much in control; immediately after the elections the generals gutted the power of the president. So she has to deal with both the head of state, as Mohamed Morsi is, and the power brokers behind the scenes."
The US has been allied with Egypt since the country signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and supplies $1.5bn every year in aid, most of which goes to the military.
Clinton is on a regional visit and arrived in Israel on Sunday night.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies