Cairo. Egyptians begin voting on Saturday in the second round of a presidential election, pitting an Islamist against a former premier of the old regime amid political turmoil and with the post’s powers still undefined.
Ahmed Shafiq, ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, faces off against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi in a two-day ballot in which 50 million Egyptians are eligible to vote.
Nationwide, 150,000 troops have been deployed for the highly divisive election.
The race has polarized the nation, dividing those who fear a return to the old regime under Shafiq’s leadership from others who want to keep religion out of politics and fear the Brotherhood would stifle personal freedoms.
Mursi scraped ahead with 24.7 percent in the first round, with former air force chief Shafiq winning 23.6 percent, and there are no clear polls indicating who may gain the upper hand in the run-off.
The election comes amid turmoil that could see the ruling military — which took power when Mubarak resigned in February last year — maintain its grip on power.
On Thursday, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled certain articles in the law governing parliamentary elections to be invalid, thus annulling the Islamist-led house.
The Brotherhood won 47 percent of the body’s seats in a drawn-out process between November last year and February.
The top court also ruled unconstitutional the “political isolation” law, which bars senior members of Mubarak’s regime and top members of his now-dissolved party from running for public office for 10 years.
The law, passed by parliament earlier this year, had threatened to bar Shafiq from the race.
Egyptian parties and activists accused the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) of staging a “counter-revolution” after a series of measures that consolidated its power ahead of the polls.
Thursday’s court rulings came a day after a justice ministry decision to grant army personnel the right to arrest civilians after that power was lifted when the decades-old state of emergency expired on May 31.
But Hesham Sallam, a researcher at Georgetown University, said recent steps are consistent with the military’s management of the transition from Mubarak’s rule.
“It is clear that SCAF has been pushing its vision, which is of a deep state protected and sealed from representative and elected institutions,” Sallam told AFP.
The rulings have put legislative power back in the military’s hands and have guaranteed that Shafiq, perceived to be the army’s candidate, stays in the race.
“SCAF has come to the realization it will not be able to protect its economic and political interests if it’s not taking the lead in carving out the rules of the new political institutions,” he said.
The military had vowed to cede power to civilian rule once a new president is elected.
But the transition has been legally chaotic, with no constitution in place to define the new president’s powers. And the panel supposed to draft a constitution was picked by the parliament that has now been annulled.
The election has seen the boycott movement — largely ignored in the first round — gain momentum.
Activists point to what they call a conflict of interest because the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court which issued Thursday’s controversial rulings is also head of the election commission.
Now high-profile activists and celebrities are calling on voters to abstain or spoil their ballot papers, highlighting the fact that the very same judiciary that issued the controversial Mubarak verdicts is overseeing the election.
Mubarak and his interior minister Habib al-Adly were sentenced to life in jail on June 2 for failing to prevent the killings of demonstrators during last year’s uprising that left around 850 people dead, but six security chiefs were acquitted.
The ruling sparked outrage, with protesters who took to the streets furious that no one had been found directly guilty of killing the protesters.
The official results of the presidential election are expected on June 21.
“Irrespective of who wins, you don’t know who will be president but you know what kind of presidency it will be. One that is subservient to SCAF. Whether that will hold is another question,” Sallam said.