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Cairo - Egypt's supreme court ruled on Thursday to dissolve the Islamist-led parliament, plunging a troubled transition to democracy into turmoil just two days before an election to replace ousted leader Hosni Mubarak.
Islamist politicians who had gained most from Mubarak's overthrow decried what they called a “coup” by an army-led establishment still stuffed with Mubarak-era officials. They said the street movement that spurred last year's popular uprising would not let it pass.
Outside the constitutional court, protesters chanted “Down, down with military rule” and hurled stones at troops lined up in a security cordon.
The parliamentary vote earlier this year had swept long repressed Islamists into a commanding position in the legislature, a feat the Muslim Brotherhood had aimed to repeat with their candidate in Saturday and Sunday's presidential vote.
Those parliamentary gains will now be put back up for grabs in a new election.
In a further setback for the Islamists, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, could stay in the presidential race against the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi.
Shafiq, a former military man appointed premier in the last days of Mubarak's rule, hailed the rulings as “historic”.
“The ruling regarding parliament includes the dissolution of the lower house of parliament in its entirety,” the head of the constitutional court, Farouk Soltan, said.
A new election will have to be called by the executive powers, he said.
The court had earlier ruled to overturn a law passed by the Islamist-led parliament that would have blocked senior Mubarak-era officials from the presidential race, legislation that was designed to keep Shafiq and others out.
For 16 months since Mubarak was toppled after 30 years in office, a transition overseen by generals has been beset by political bickering, protests and often bloodshed.
But many Egyptians had at least taken some reassurance from the calm conduct of the parliamentary election and the prospect of a presidential poll even though the process of writing a new constitution to define the president's powers is in deadlock.
Now even those gains are being plunged into doubt.
A senior member of the Brotherhood's political party, which swept up the biggest bloc of seats in parliament, said Egypt was entering a “dark tunnel” if parliament was dissolved.
“Keeping the military candidate and overturning the elected parliament after granting the military police the right to arrest is a complete coup,” said a moderate Islamist, Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh.
He was referring to a decree issued with little fanfare on Wednesday allowing military police to detain civilians, a move critics said was a barely disguised bid to reinstate the decades-old emergency law that ended on May 31.
“Whoever thinks that millions of youth will let it pass is deluding themselves,” Abol Fotouh said of the rulings.
For activists, the measures add to their suspicions that the pillars of Mubarak's establishment such as the army and police are regrouping to challenge the fragile political gains.
Liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei, a former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, warned: “The election of a president in the absence of a constitution and a parliament is the election of a president with powers that not even the most entrenched dictatorships have known.”
The protesters outside the court demanded that the judges block the presidential bid by Shafiq, a man they derisively call a member of the “feloul”, or a remnant of Mubarak's regime.
But at a hotel a few kilometres away on the outskirts of Cairo, Shafiq addressed hundreds of ecstatic supporters, who danced and chanted: “The army and the people are in one hand.”
“The message of this historic verdict is that the era of political score settling has ended,” Shafiq told them, pledging to end chaos and restore stability.
Shafiq's support comes mainly from disparate backers who include a business elite that prospered under Mubarak, Christians worried about Islamist rule, and others who would welcome a military man to restore order to turbulent streets.
Morsi, who has relied on the 84-year-old Brotherhood's grassroots network, can also count on ultraorthodox Salafi Muslims in the second round. But he has struggled to win over the supporters of centrist candidates, who could prove vital.
For many Egyptians who picked centrist candidates in the first round, the weekend vote presents a wrenching choice. They worry as much about an Islamist imposing new strictures as they do about handing power back to an ex-military man.
The legal wrangling adds to the suspense around an election that is supposed to seal a transition to democracy after Mubarak was toppled in an Arab Spring uprising last year but has laid bare deep divisions over how Egypt should be governed.
The army pledged to formally hand power to a new president by July 1, although analysts and diplomats expect the generals to continue to wield hefty influence well after that.
It leaves Egypt with a polarising race.
“There is no such thing as 'feloul'. We are all Egyptians. No to the plot seeking to divide Egypt,” read one banner in the capital, backing Shafiq. Across the street, Shafiq campaign posters were spray-painted red to obscure his face. - Reuters