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CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egypt run by Amr Moussa would be a civilian state with an army that enjoys respect but not "a life of its own", a vision that could challenge the privileges of generals who have been ruling since Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power.
In an interview with Reuters, Moussa also said he would fight corruption to strengthen the economy, preserve strong ties with the United States, respect a peace treaty with Israel and cooperate with the Islamists who now dominate parliament.
A former Arab League secretary general, Moussa is one of the leading contenders in the presidential election expected in the next few months under a timetable laid out by the ruling military council which assumed power from Mubarak last year.
The generals have faced criticism at home and abroad over their management of the post-Mubarak transition, their commitment to democratic reform brought into question by actions reminiscent of the ousted leader's rule.
"I think they (the military council) will hand over the authority. I think that doing otherwise will be catastrophic for everybody," said Moussa, who as a liberal sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum to the Islamists who control 70 percent of seats in parliament.
"The military will be one of the basic institutions in the country, but not a separate one, meaning not having a life of its own and the country having a different life," he added, at his campaign headquarters in Giza on the west bank of the river Nile.
Moussa would not say whether he thought the military council was doing a good or bad job. But he added his voice to those lobbying for a quicker transition of power from the army, saying the presidential election should be held in April.
"Now what counts is that the transfer of authority will take place within the next few weeks," he said.
Ties between Egypt's interim military rulers and the United States were recently strained when Egyptian authorities decided to bring charges against civil society workers including American citizens who work for U.S.-based groups promoting democracy.
The activists have been accused of working for organisations that were not properly licensed in Egypt and had received funds from overseas illegally.
Moussa said he had no details of the case but thought it "should have been dealt with in a different way". Egypt was sensitive to the work of NGOs, he said. But he added: "This is the era of NGOs. We cannot deny the importance of the existence of NGOs all over the world."
While promising to steer the country of 80 million towards democracy, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been accused of standing in the way of reform in an attempt to preserve privileges the military enjoyed in the old order.
Since officers overthew the monarch in 1952, all of Egypt's presidents have hailed from the military, something pro-democracy reformists say has allowed the army to build extensive economic interests and political influence.
Moussa, 75, was Egypt's foreign minister for 10 years under Mubarak. His transfer to the Arab League in 2001 was widely seen as a bid by Mubarak to push him out of government because of his growing domestic popularity at the time.
Moussa's profile grew with his criticism of Israel during the Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, that broke out in 2000. One Egyptian singer penned a song for him called "I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa."
But today his critics argue that while he is still popular with some, Moussa is too closely associated with the old order to be the leader of post-Mubarak Egypt.
Asked about his vision for Egypt's 1979 peace deal with Israel, Moussa said: "We are going to respect all our treaties, including the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, expecting that they will do the same."
In his final years in power, Mubarak came under fire at home over a Middle East policy which critics said aligned Egypt too closely with Israel, for example by cooperating in imposing a blockade on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
That policy was in turn seen as the result of Mubarak's relationship with Washington, Israel's closest ally and the supplier of an annual $1.3 billion in military to Cairo.
Moussa said the Mubarak approach to relations with Washington was "no longer valid" and said he would launch a "strategic debate" with the United States.
"There is no interest for any country, big or small or medium size to have bad relations with the United States," he said. "By the same token, Egypt, coming back after its revolution to its role as a leading country in the Middle East, requires ... a special relationship."
Addressing his domestic priorities, Moussa said he wanted to build a "full democracy" while launching broader reforms and fostering economic and social development.
"It has to be a deeper democracy, with human rights, fundamental freedoms, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary and so on," he said.
"I cannot ignore a certain very unfortunate fact that 50 percent of our population live around or at the poverty line and this will determine and has to determine all our policies, foreign, regional and national," he added.
The year of turmoil since Mubarak was toppled has hit the economy, hammering tourism and investment and driving up unemployment.
Moussa said the election of a president would be "a message for all that Egypt is back as a state and ready for business". Speaking about his plans for the economy, he pledged to wipe out the nepotism he blamed for many of Egypt's problems.
"Done are the days of friends and cronies," he said.
The Moussa campaign would be helped were the Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest of the Islamist parties in parliament, to support him. Banned under Mubarak, the Brotherhood has said it will neither field its own candidate for the presidency or back any other Islamists.
Moussa said he had yet to discuss his bid with the group but saw room for cooperation.
"Both of us are in the same position: that we are nationalist citizens, that we need to save the country," Moussa said. "It won't be the case that we get into conflict ... while the country is sinking."