Egypt's army rulers issued a decree on Sunday to hasten the conclusion of parliamentary elections after deadly clashes in Cairo last month raised pressure for a quicker handover to civilian control, Al Arabiya reported.
Final run-offs to the assembly's upper house will end on Feb. 22 instead of March 12 as previously planned, the ruling military council said in a statement, and the house will hold its first sitting on Feb. 28.
Fifty-nine people were killed in confrontations in late November and December between security forces and protesters demanding the military leave power sooner.
Many Egyptians voiced outrage at video footage of soldiers beating men and women after they had already collapsed on the ground, some dragging a female protester by her black full-body veil, exposing her bra then clubbing and kicking her.
Thousands marched on Cairo's Tahrir Square on Dec. 20 to condemn the military's tactics.
Many believe the army is no longer fit to manage security on the ground and carry out difficult reforms at a time of political and economic crisis.
Others say it is the only institution with the credibility to unite the country and prevent Egypt being dragged further into chaos by the opposing political forces freed by the toppling of president Hosni Mubarak in February.
The November demonstrations had already prompted the military rulers to fix mid-2012 as their deadline for quitting power by handing over to a civilian president.
An earlier end to the multi-stage parliamentary election could take some momentum out of the protests, led by pro-democracy groups and rights activists who suspect the army is secretly maneuvering to maintain its autonomy and its broad business interests after the transition.
An army council member had already flagged the possibility of a shorter election to the upper house, or Shura Council, last month.
He said the judiciary had agreed to the idea of squeezing the Shura election into two stages instead of three, and that a plan to shorten the vote tallying process was being studied.
Voters go to the polls next week for the third and concluding round of the lower house election.
Islamist parties that took a secondary role in the protests against Mubarak, but which benefit from strong grass-roots networks, pushed a liberal bloc into third place in the first two rounds.
The first round of the upper house election will take place on Jan. 29 and 30, with a run-off on Feb. 7, the military council said in the statement. The second stage will be on Feb. 14 and 15 with a run-off on Feb. 22.
Egypt on the defense
Meanwhile, a top Egyptian official is defending sweeps through the offices of 10 human rights and democracy groups, rejecting denunciations from the U.S., U.N. and Germany.
International Cooperation Minister Faiza Aboul Naga defends the operation as a legitimate investigation into organizations suspected of operating without permits.
She rejected calling the security sweep a raid. She said Sunday the decision to send special commandos in full gear to seal offices while searching through documents and interrogating employees came from judges, not Egypt's ruling military council or government.
The U.S. said Egyptian authorities agreed to halt raids against non-governmental pro-democracy groups.
Three of the organizations targeted Thursday were U.S.-based organizations funded in part by the State Department.
Angered by the swoops, Washington called on Egyptian authorities to halt "harassment" of staff of the groups involved, which included the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.
The U.S. government also hinted it could review the $1.3 billion in annual military aid to Cairo if the raids continued.
Egyptian government ministers told a news conference the authorities had acted within the law as part of an investigation into illegal funding of political activities.
"These violations are criminal and the punishment could include imprisonment," said Justice Minister Adel Abdelhamid Abdallah.
He said Egypt was keen to support human rights groups, including foreign ones, and that 35,000 organizations were operating under the law and with appropriate permits in Egypt.