Tens of thousands of Egyptians have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand the rollback of what they see as politically biased court decisions and military power grabs designed to throttle last year's revolution and steal the presidential election.
The mass protest and sit-in, initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood on Wednesday night, has since then grown and remained determined as ever on Saturday.
The anti-military rally comes ahead of anxiously awaited results of a runoff vote between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi against Ahmed Shafik, the final prime minister to serve under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
The presidential election commission was due to release the election results on Thursday, but it delayed its announcement, claiming it had to deal with around 400 complaints from both campaigns.
On Friday, the English website of state-owned newspaper Al Ahram cited government sources who said Shafik would be declared the winner, while the Arabic website cited election committee sources who said Morsi was still in the lead.
The Brotherhood has released photocopies of official counts from every district in Egypt showing Morsi with a lead of around 900,000 votes, but those results are not final until the election committee rules.
“The internal arena is witnessing a state of wide controversy and concern regarding the future of the country amid an atmosphere of doubts and rumours pressing the public opinion,” the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces said in a statement on Friday.
“The early announcement of presidential election results before they are announced by the official body is unjustifiable, and it was one of the main reasons for the division and confusion prevailing in the political arena.”
The SCAF warned that “any attempts to harm public or private interests” would be met with “utmost firmness and strength” by the security forces.
The statement was viewed as a broadside against the Brotherhood, which has demanded the reversal of a Supreme Constitutional Court decision dissolving parliament and the military’s election-night constitutional declaration, in which the generals assumed legislative powers and a veto over the new constitution.
The military has refused both demands, and neither side has made concessions.
Although analysts believe negotiations continue behind the scenes, the Brotherhood claims it has not talked with the generals since Thursday, when high-ranking Brotherhood member and speaker of parliament Saad el-Katatni met the SCAF to again state that the movement rejected the dissolution of parliament.
On Friday, the SCAF defended its constitutional declaration, which also erased the president’s role as commander-in-chief and gave the military autonomy over its own budget and personnel decisions.
"The issuing of a constitutional declaration was a necessity imposed by the needs of managing the affairs of the country during the current critical phase of the history of our nation," the military council said.
In a press conference following the release of military’s statement, Morsi said the Brotherhood wanted neither "confrontation nor violence" but would "not allow anyone to tamper with the result".
"We expect that the result will truly reflect the popular will, which we all know," Morsi said, adding that the protesters in Tahrir Square were there to "guarantee that will" is respected.
He also unveiled an unlikely alliance of well-known liberal, leftist and secular groups that had allied with the Brotherhood after two days of intense negotiations.
The alliance reflected the deepening concern among pro-revolution forces that whatever gains they might have earned from the 2011 revolt were on the verge of being wiped out by the military.
Among Morsi’s supporters were leftist April 6th movement founder Ahmed Maher, former Google executive Wael Ghonim, young liberal leader Shadi al-Ghazali Harb and prominent journalist Hamdi Qandil, who previously worked with Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Movement for Change.
ElBaradei, though not present, was said to endorse the alliance with the Brotherhood, as was Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an ex-Brotherhood Islamist who came in fourth in the first round of the presidential election.
“We're at the moment where we have to distinguish between political difference and a blatant military coup,” Ghonim said, to applause. “We won't act like in 1954, where some accept the death of democracy if it’s bringing someone we do not want. This isn't a stance with the Brotherhood but for democracy and legitimacy. Egypt needs to forget differences.”
Harb acknowledged that pro-revolutionary groups, particularly the youth, had grown distrustful of the Brotherhood following months of protests which the Brotherhood refused to join and perceived deals with the military. But he said non-Islamists needed the Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood knew it needed them.
“I can promise if they isolate themselves again, they lose it forever, this is their last chance,” he said.
'Down with military rule'
On Thursday, Shafik challenged Morsi's self-proclaimed victory and said he was sure he had won.
In his first appearance since the voting ended, Shafik told cheering supporters that protesters’ “campaigns of terror and the media manipulation are all attempts to force the election committee to announce a particular result."
He called for calm and unity, saying he would invite opponents to join his administration.
"I am fully confident that I will be the legitimate winner,” he said, though his campaign has declined to provide proof.
At Tahrir, the broad traffic interchange was filled with tents offering shade from the scorching sun and hawkers offering an array of goods from tea to "I Love Tahrir Square" t-shirts.
Large groups of people were bussed in from the provinces by the Brotherhood and other religious movements, and kiosks were arranged to sell merchandise bearing the logo of the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party.
Mahmoud Mohammed, a bearded 31-year-old marine engineer from Alexandria among a group from the fundamentalist Salafist movement camping on the square, told the Reuters news agency they were not looking for a battle but wanted to see democracy installed.
"The people elected a parliament and they put it in the rubbish bin. We need the army to hand over," he said. "No one came here for a fight. We need democracy."
The deadlock between Egypt's two strongest forces has raised grave doubts about prospects for consensual democracy, though some see possible compromise if Morsi does become president.
Brotherhood advisers have said they may accept the dissolution of parliament, and their candidates are still likely to do well if elections are held again.
But high-ranking members of the movement have said that if the military does not renegotiate its constitutional declaration, or if Morsi loses the election by fraud, they are prepared to take to the streets, raising the spectre of a return to the chaos and violence of the 18 days that unseated Mubarak.
Both the military and the Brotherhood are aware of the possible consequences of such unrest, including deadly clashes between protesters and security forces and the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, and are likely keen to avoid it.
The election commission has not said when it would announce the winner of the runoff, but its secretary-general, Hatem Begato, told Al Ahram that the winner would be announced on Saturday or Sunday.
Allegations of fraud
The commission said the announcement was postponed from Thursday because a panel of judges must look into about 400 complaints of voting fraud submitted by both campaigns, including lawyers for Shafik claiming fraud in 14 of Egypt's 27 provinces.
The lawyers said ballots sent to polling centers were already marked for Morsi.
Morsi's lawyers accused Shafik of buying votes and being involved in forging lists of registered voters to include soldiers, who are barred from voting, and names of the dead.
The Brotherhood says it is being targeted by an organised campaign to keep it out of the presidency, and that even if Morsi is declared the victor, he will face deep resistance that will make it impossible for him to govern.
After two days of voting that ended on Sunday, the group declared Morsi won 52 per cent of the vote. Shafik's camp on Monday announced he had won 51.5 per cent of the vote.