CAIRO – Officials postponed declaring a winner in Egypt's disputed election on Wednesday, sending political tensions soaring as the country awaited its first new president in three decades.
Adding to the confusion and uncertainty were reports about the health of Hosni Mubarak, who is serving a life sentence for failing to stop the killing of protesters in the uprising that ousted him last year. At one point Tuesday, he was said to be near death, while some believed the report was a pretext by sympathetic allies of Mubarak to transfer him out of prison to a more comfortable facility.
Last weekend's runoff election was long touted as a landmark moment — the choice of Egypt's first civilian president to take over the generals who have ruled since Mubarak's removal on Feb. 11, 2011. Instead, it has turned into a confrontation between the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the entrenched elements of Mubarak's old regime, including the military.
Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters along with some secular youth revolutionary groups camped out Wednesday night in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the birthplace of last year's uprising, and denounced the military, trying to push back against a series of power grabs by the generals last week.
The Election Commission did not say when it would announce the winner of the runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, and Mubarak's former prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. Both candidates claim they won, and the commission was supposed to declare the top vote-getter Thursday.
But its secretary-general, Hatem Begato, told the state newspaper Al-Ahram that the winner would be announced Saturday or Sunday.
The commission said the announcement was postponed because a panel of judges must look into about 400 complaints of voting fraud submitted by both campaigns, including lawyers for Shafiq claiming fraud in 14 of Egypt's 27 provinces where they said ballots sent to polling centers were already marked for Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate. Morsi's lawyers accused Shafiq 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 organized 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 Sunday, the group declared Morsi won 52 percent of the vote. Shafiq's camp on Monday announced he had won 51.5 precent of the vote.
A group of independent jurists known as the Judges For Egypt said Morsi was the winner, with a similar proportion to the Brotherhood's count. Shafiq's campaign accused the group of being affiliated with the Brotherhood.
Foreign and local election monitors say the runoff was not marked by enough serious or large-scale irregularities to question its validity.
In a series of swift moves last week, the generals cornered for themselves sweeping powers that effectively subordinate the next president and severely limit his capability for independent action.
A court order dissolved parliament, which was led by the Brotherhood, and the military issued a constitutional declaration that makes the generals the nation's legislators and gives them control of the budget. They will dominate the security system after reshaping a key National Defense Council to keep it under their control. The generals will also oversee the process of writing Egypt's new constitution. The Brotherhood raised alarm when it and other Islamists tried to pack an earlier attempt to form an assembly to write a constitution with their members, giving them the strongest voice in writing it. The assembly was dissolved by a court order.
Allies of the military, Mubarak-era officials and secular opponents of Islamists also hold sway in the judiciary, the prosecutor's office and the election commission.
The resulting standoff has worried Washington, which has long had close ties to Egypt's military and provides it around $1 billion a year in aid. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. expects the military to "support the democratic transition, to recede by turning over authority."
"The military has to assume an appropriate role, which is not to try to interfere with, dominate or subvert the constitutional authority," she said.
Privately, U.S. officials 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 on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
While the Brotherhood and secular revolutionary groups have denounced the military's moves, some Egyptian liberals see the steps as a way to prevent an Islamist takeover by the 82-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, or ensure that its hold on power is difficult and temporary.
"I see the military council at this point as a protector of the identity of the state against the Brotherhood, who are not a purely Egyptian party, but an international one," said Emad Gad, a member of the liberal Free Egyptians party. He cited celebrations in Gaza Strip ruled by the Palestinian Islamic Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, when news broke of Morsi's victory claims.
Anti-Islamist figures and others seen as backers of the military were escalating rhetoric against the Brotherhood on TV talk shows, accusing the group of seeking to set up a "parallel state" or of forming armed militias. Others defended the military, saying the generals had to protect Egypt from destabilizing changes.
Further raising the tone and sense of confusion, rumors circulated on social media sites and even some state-run media of tanks moving on the outskirts of Cairo, although the reports could not be confirmed.
"It is clear that there is sharp polarization between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood," said Islamist Montasser el-Zayat, a prominent rights lawyer and activist. "It suggests that the next few days will probably be difficult for Egypt and the Egyptians."
The Brotherhood has warned that a win by Shafiq, widely seen as an extension of the Mubarak regime, could only be the result of fraud and that it would send its supporters out onto the streets.
Still, the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat el-Shater, sought to defuse fears that the group would resort to violence if Shafiq is declared the winner, saying the Brotherhood will use peaceful means, "not through violence or terrorism."
Shafiq's campaign sought to appeal to the international community, holding a news conference in English for foreign correspondents to send a message that it will accept "whatever the outcome."
Basil el-Baz, an adviser to Shafiq, said the campaign was confident he was the winner. But he added, "At the end of the day, candidate Shafiq is willing to accept the results regardless of the outcomes."
"In the event that candidate Morsi is indeed successful and victorious in the elections, the first phone he will receive will be from candidate Shafiq," el-Baz said.
Adding to the electoral limbo has been the murkiness over the state of Mubarak's health.
The 84-year-old former leader has been said to be in poor health since his ouster, even appearing at his trial in a hospital bed. On Tuesday, state media reported he had suffered a stroke and was put on life support. Security officials said Wednesday that he was in a coma but off life support and that his heart and other vital organs were functioning.
Security officials said he had been moved from his prison where he has been kept since his June 2 conviction to a military hospital overlooking the Nile in Cairo — a transfer that could stir up anger among opponents of the regime.
Mubarak's wife, Suzanne, was at his bedside in the hospital. The security fficials said a team of 15 doctors, including heart, blood and brain specialists, was supervising his care. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The conflicting reports raised suspicions among some of Mubarak's opponents that the rumors were intended to justify the move to hospital — something his lawyers have sought.
"There are attempts to spoil the political scene," the Brotherhood's el-Shater said, citing "a fierce campaign of black rumors all across the country."
AP correspondent Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.