CAIRO // The stage is set today for a dire battle between revolutionary groups, Islamists and former members of Hosni Mubarak's regime that will play out in a presidential election run-off over the next 48 hours.
Thursday's supreme constitutional court (SCC) judgments that allowed Ahmed Shafiq to continue as a candidate and ruled a third of parliamentary seats unconstitutional were a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood, the most powerful political group in post-Mubarak Egypt.
It has yet to be seen how the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) will implement the ruling but parliament is effectively dissolved. New elections could be held for some or all of the seats, analysts say. That hurts the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party most because it had won nearly half the seats and used its influence to hold sway over new laws and appointments to a special commission to rewrite the 1971 constitution.
Officials from the Freedom and Justice Party said the SCC decisions had sharpened the importance of the presidential elections and that the party's full apparatus was focused on winning votes for Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood's presidential candidate opposing Mr Shafiq.
Mr Morsi's campaign is well placed to win votes today because it has the backing of the Brotherhood's network of offices and volunteers across the country, and other Islamist groups. But it has won only modest support from groups outside its traditional sphere of influence, such as the secularist April 6 Movement.
"All our efforts are now on pushing our candidate for the presidency," said Amr Darrag, a senior official in the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party. "What these decisions have done is make these elections very, very important. The only hope for the Egyptian people is that Morsi takes executive power and can change the system from the inside."
Mr Darrag said the party was examining all its legal options, but would ultimately accept the decisions from the court because the party believed in the rule of law.
But he said the timing of the decision just before the run-off, and that the judges were all appointed during Mubarak's rule, suggested a "soft coup" orchestrated by the military and remnants of the Mubarak regime.
"It's like starting from zero," said Mohammed Zahid, an independent researcher in Cairo who is studying Islamist political movements. "Now the Muslim Brotherhood have no official influence. They are back to the beginning."
Many protesters and groups that had been involved in the first protests against Mubarak last year were instead calling on voters to boycott voting today or nullify their votes by writing on ballots in a bid to discredit the elections. Several hundred people marched to Tahrir Square yesterday to protest against what many said was an attempt by the military to hijack "the revolution".
The campaign of Mr Shafiq has surged in the past several weeks. He has portrayed himself as a strong hand who could bring stability to Egypt and prevent Islamist domination, winning support from Coptic Christians - many of whom fear an Islamist government would curtail their rights - businessmen, and secular-minded Egyptians.
Some of his supporters said yesterday that the SCC's decisions were a positive development for Egypt because they would mean restarting the process of writing the constitution and electing parliament in a more transparent way.
"I think it is the best situation we've had for months," said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a Coptic member of the advisory council to the Scaf. "We are going back to ground zero and this time we can get it right, starting with the constitution and then elections. The Islamists will still be powerful, but not as dominant."
Ms Makram-Ebeid said she supported Mr Shafiq because "he's a statesman, not a man of the regime".
"I compare him to Charles de Gaulle, who took a war-torn country and put it back on its feet, who spoke in a civilian language and was able to mobilise the people behind him," she said.