CAIRO -- Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed a hollow victory yesterday in Egypt's presidential vote, just hours after the country's military rulers stripped the office of its most important powers.

The power grab by the ruling generals delivered another major blow to hopes for a democratic transition after last year's uprising and the ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

The generals, who deny having effectively staged a coup and rendering the elected president a mere figurehead, will maintain authority over the crafting of laws and the drafting of a new constitution. Civilian oversight of their budget and other affairs will be strictly off-limits.

If Morsi's victory is confirmed in the official result expected on Thursday, it would be the first victory of an Islamist as head of state in the stunning wave of pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East in the past year. But the military's moves to retain power sharpen the possibility of confrontation and more of the turmoil that has beset Egypt since Mubarak's overthrow.

"The military may partially exit from power after a new round of tough negotiations with the Islamist and the secular opposition on safeguarding its interests," said Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert at St. John's University in New York. "However, and no matter what, the military will continue to play a dominant role in Egyptian politics."

In Washington, Pentagon press secretary George Little said the United States was troubled by the timing of the military leaders' announcement and would urge them "to relinquish power to civilian-elected authorities and to respect the universal rights of the Egyptian people and the rule of law."

Said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland: "This is a critical moment in Egypt, and the world is watching closely.We are particularly concerned by decisions that appear to prolong the military's hold on power."

The Obama administration has sought to safeguard its interests while championing change in Egypt. Mubarak made Cairo a bulwark of American influence in the Middle East before being pushed from power in February 2011.

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