Allegations of fraud delayed the result of Egypt’s presidential election on Thursday, fraying nerves as the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims victory, called for street protests against moves by the ruling generals to deny them power.
Thousands of protesters gathered for a third day in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, cauldron of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, to demand that the officers who pushed him aside keep their word and hand over to civilians by July 1.
There is little sign that will happen after the ruling military council dissolved the Islamist-led parliament and set strict limits on the new president’s powers. But prominent Islamists dampened talk of violence, for all their promise of permanent town square vigils until their demands are met.
Among thousands who packed Tahrir after dark, Ahmed Youssef said he and his friends from a province north of Cairo would camp out overnight to join a major rally after weekly prayers on Friday: “We thought the army would stand by the revolution, and were surprised when it didn’t,” said the bearded, 24-year-old electrical engineer, who supports a hardline Salafist group.
“We will stay here until the military council hands over power,” he added, voicing a widely-shared sense of betrayal by generals who promised to rule only until elections. “If they do this, we will carry them on our shoulders. We love the army.”
The state election committee has spent four days collating counts from the two-day run-off ballot but said it would miss a target of Thursday for announcing the result as it was going through hundreds of complaints from both sides. As the weekend starts on Friday, that might mean a wait until Sunday.
“We are taking our time to review the appeals to investigate them properly but, God willing, the results will be announced by Sunday at most, if not before that,” Judge Maher el-Beheiry, a member of the election committee, told Reuters.
The candidates - former general and Mubarak aide Ahmed Shafik and the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy - have both called for national unity as the delay jangled the nerves of a nation increasingly suspicious of the military and the Mubarak-era establishment, or “deep state”, that survived the revolution.
Some see the delay as a bid to pressure the Brotherhood to accept the military decree that curbed the president’s powers before any Morsy presidency. The committee insists it is simply a procedural issue to ensure all appeals are fairly assessed.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said the delay “generates concern, no doubt”, expressing fear that the authorities were getting ready to announce Shafik the winner.
“The doubt extends to this possibility,” he told Reuters.
In an effort to buttress its claim of victory, the Brotherhood has distributed what it says are copies of official records of the vote count at the local level. It says the margin of its victory means it is impossible for Shafik to have won.
But some have identified what they describe as flaws in the paperwork, saying, for example, that some of the documents did not bear official stamps or that the numbers did not add up.
“We cannot rely on them as numbers, because they contain great problems,” Hafez Abou Saeda, a human rights activist who is coordinating a monitoring initiative, said.
Egyptian media described a nation on edge.
“Egypt on the verge of exploding,” Al-Watan daily wrote in a front-page headline, highlighting worries about how supporters of rival camps will respond if their candidate loses. “Security alert before the presidential result,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm.
“The interest of the nation goes before narrow interests,” said reformist politician Mohamed ElBaradei on Twitter. “What is required immediately is a mediation committee to find a political and legal exit from the crisis. Egypt is on the verge of explosion.”
Cairo’s cafes and social media were alive with chatter about troops preparing to secure major cities, but military sources played down the idea that there was any unusual activity beyond extra alertness.
Adding to unease, Mubarak is himself back in the news, being let out of the prison where he began a life sentence this month for treatment at a military hospital. Security sources have said the 84-year-old was slipping in and out of a coma but “stabilizing”. Many Egyptians suspect the generals are exaggerating to get their old comrade out of jail.
Mohamed Abdel Razek, a Mubarak defense lawyer, said the former president had a stroke on Wednesday after he had a fall during an accompanied visit to a bathroom at Tora prison.
That incident prompted doctors to order he be moved to the hospital in Maadi that was better equipped, the lawyer said.
The political uncertainty has taken its toll on an already battered economy. The pound has hit a seven-year low against the dollar, and Egypt’s benchmark share index has tumbled 17 percent since the first round of the vote in May.
In a nation where vote-rigging was the norm during 60 years of military rule, and which is reeling from what critics called a “soft coup” by the generals in the past week, the delay in the results fuelled suspicions of foul play.
“There is absolutely no justification for the result of the vote to be delayed,” Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian told Al-Jazeera on Wednesday, describing complaints from the Shafik camp as either invalid or too few to affect the result.
He called on Shafik to show “chivalry” and accept defeat.
Morsy said within hours of polls closing last Sunday that he had beaten Shafik by 52 percent to 48 percent. The group has stuck to those figures.
Shafik’s camp said on Wednesday it remained confident that its man, whom Mubarak appointed prime minister during the uprising, would win, although a spokesman for Shafik also described the vote as “too close to call”.
Whoever is declared winner, the next president’s powers have already been curbed in the last-minute decree issued by the army after it ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament.
The European Union on Wednesday joined the United States, both major aid donors, in expressing “concern” at what the army moves meant for a promised transition to democracy.
On Tuesday, election monitors from the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the peace between Egypt and Israel that unlocked U.S. aid, said they could not call the election free and fair as they were denied sufficient access to polling stations and results collation.
The Brotherhood has called for open-ended protests against the army’s decree to limit the president’s role and retain powers, but said it would not resort to violence.
Reporting by Marwa Awad, Shaimaa Fayed, Edmund Blair, Patrick Werr, Ahmed Tolba and Dina Zayed in Cairo; Writing by Alastair Macdonald and Edmund Blair; Editing by Philippa Fletcher