CAIRO – Authorities deployed extra security forces in Cairo streets and near key state institutions and police were ordered to "confront with firmness" any violation of the law just hours ahead of the official announcement of Egypt's highly disputed presidential election results.
The June 16-17 runoff vote between the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Morsi and ousted leader Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, left Egyptians with nerve-wrecking uncertainty as both candidates claimed victory and the results were delayed.
Both candidates have rallied supporters to the streets in a show of strength amid speculations about last-minute backdoor deals between the powerful ruling generals and the rising Islamists over power-sharing arrangements.Anticipation was high and there were fears violence could break out after Sunday's announcement.
A gathering of secular-leaning politicians criticized on Saturday what they said was U.S. meddling on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has claimed victory. Other secularists have stood behind the Islamist group, calling it the likely legitimate winner and the best hope in the current circumstances against continued military domination of the country.
Many Egyptians have rallied behind Morsi as a chance to finally rid the country of the old Mubarak regime, while others support Shafiq as the best bet to counter Islamists and restore order after a year of protests, economic hardship, and fear about crime and continued instability.
But there is little hope that the results will produce an end to 16 months of political turmoil. A Morsi victory will likely see the new civilian government fight for its authority against a military that has ensured that its powers persist past the transition. A Shafiq victory will be seen by large sections of the public as illegitimate, as he is perceived as the favored candidate of the military rulers that appointed the election commission.
The commission postponed official results that had been scheduled to be announced on Thursday, leading to speculation that the military rulers are using those results as a bargaining chip in backroom negotiations with the Brotherhood about post-election division of powers.
In addition to a Morsi or Shafiq victory, a third possibility is that Egypt remains in political limbo: The elections commission may decide to annul the runoff vote and call for new elections in some or all constituencies due to allegations of irregularities by both sides.
Farouk Sultan, the head of the Supreme Presidential Election Commission, said Saturday the results would be announced the next day but did not give further details.
Underlying the tensions are a series of rulings and decrees just before and during the vote that have been perceived as a push by the military to monopolize power and leave the president with only limited authority.
The military, which took over after Mubarak's ouster, has pledged to hand over power to civilian rule by July 1. But on June 15, the country's highest court dissolved the country's Islamist-led parliament, calling the law under which it had been elected unconstitutional. Two days later the generals issued a declaration in which they gave themselves legislative powers, including control over drafting a constitution.
Brotherhood leaders say the military is holding the election results hostage to get the movement to accept the power grab.
On Saturday, Maj. General Mahmdouh Shaheen, a member of the ruling council and its legal adviser, would not comment on negotiations with the Brotherhood. He said there are no plans to amend the constitutional declaration entrenching the executive and legislative powers of the generals.
"There is no amending of the constitutional declaration. It is just like the constitution," he told The Associated Press.
The Brotherhood meanwhile has compiled what it says is a detailed breakdown of election results proving Morsi's victory. Leaders of the Islamist group have called their followers to Cairo's Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak. Along with some secular-leaning activist groups, the protesters have vowed "a new revolution" if Shafiq is the winner, claiming that a loss would prove that election fraud was orchestrated by the military.
The ruling generals accused Islamists of stirring tension and threatened to crack down on any violence by any group unhappy with the election outcome.
For the sixth straight day, thousands of Morsi supporters and critics of the military held a rally in Tahrir Square, endorsing his victory and calling on the military to rescind its recent decisions and restore the dissolved parliament.
Across town, thousands of supporters of Shafiq and the military held a parallel rally in Nasr City, north of Cairo, outside the parade reviewing stands where former president Anwar Sadat was assassinated by radical Islamists in 1981. This was the largest show of force by pro-Shafiq, pro-military demonstrators since the election.
They raised Egyptian flags and posters of Shafiq and chanted, "Down, down with the rule of the Guide," referring to the title of the Brotherhood's movement leader.
Rumors have circulated about preparations for violence by both sides, feeding the tense atmosphere. Postings on the social networking sites of Facebook and Twitter warned Egyptians that the security apparatus is training thugs inside their camps to use them to break up protests when the results are announced.
The independent Al-Youm Al-Sabaa daily's website said that authorities reinforced the security presence near the headquarters of the elections commission, deploying troops and explosives experts.
Groups who have opposed both Mubarak and the Islamists — liberals, leftists, secularists, and others — are divided.
Some youth groups and liberal figures say they have joined ranks with Islamists for the sake of democracy. They say they have received assurances from Morsi that he will form a national unity government headed by an independent.
Mostafa Shawki, a leading protester, said he met with Morsi to stand with him against the military. "We are not forming a front with the Brotherhood or a union of any kind," he said. "If Morsi is announced victor, we will be his fiercest opposition."
Others accuse the Brotherhood of "hijacking" the revolution and accused the United States of trying to sway the results in favor of Islamists.
On Saturday, a bloc of liberal and leftist parties represented in the disbanded parliament — the Free Egyptians, the Tagammu, and the National Democratic Front — held a news conference accusing the Brotherhood of trying to blackmail elections officials with street demonstrations.
"We have to protect the revolution from those who want to hijack it," said Osama el-Ghazali Harb of the Democratic Front. "The rallies in the square reflect only lack of confidence, and an attempt to force the results in advance ... Real democracy means the courage to accept defeat."
Many liberals see the Brotherhood's newfound spirit of confrontation and inclusiveness as hypocritical. The group backed the military's transition plan throughout most of last year and was also perceived to try to dominate the drafting of the constitution.
During Saturday's press conference, liberals accused the United States of putting pressure on the ruling military council to hand power to the Brotherhood.
"We have seen the US forcing military council to hand power to the Brotherhood," Harb said. Activist Mahmoud al-Allali said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton "is giving directions and instructions, directly and sharply."
On Wednesday, Clinton had demanded that the military "support the democratic transition, to recede by turning over authority."
Clinton spoke against the military's attempts to keep a strong grip on power and said, "The military has to assume an appropriate role, which is not to try to interfere with, dominate or subvert the constitutional authority."
U.S. officials had earlier expressed concern that a Shafiq victory could have dangerous fallout, with protests and ensuing instability that could lead the military to take even stronger measures. The officials spoke earlier on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
AP Correspondent Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report