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Cairo - Egypt's ruling armed forces were on alert on Sunday as fears of violence mounted in the final hours before the state election committee is to name the winner of last weekend's presidential election at 3 p.m. (1300 GMT).
Mohammed Mursi of the long-oppressed Muslim Brotherhood has already claimed to be the successor to the ousted Hosni Mubarak. Millions of his Islamist loyalists may react with fury if the run-off goes to Ahmed Shafik, a former general and Mubarak ally.
Few troops were on the streets but security officials said they were ready to respond to trouble. Government workers around Cairo's Tahrir Square, where thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters had gathered, were encouraged to go home for the day.
Armoured vehicles were posted in the capital at the election committee headquarters and the government information office where a news conference will end an anxious week of waiting.
The result will be historic for the Middle East, but will not end power struggles between the army, Islamists and others over Egypt's future.
Mursi says he won the race to lead the biggest Arab nation, even if the generals who have been in charge since Mubarak was ousted 500 days ago are not giving up their control just yet.
The Brotherhood and liberal-minded activists who galvanised the street last year against Mubarak may react angrily if the election committee announces the winner is instead Shafik, a former air force commander and last prime minister of the old regime. Like Mubarak, every president for six decades has emerged from military ranks.
Many Egyptians, and millions across the region, would see a Shafik win as a mortal blow to last year's Arab Spring revolt, despite his assurances of also wanting an inclusive government.
“Egypt waits for the president and prepares for the worst,” wrote Al-Masry Al-Youm daily in a front-page headline, referring to concerns about violence erupting. Echoing that, Al-Watan wrote: “The Brotherhood prepares the stage for Mursi, and an intense security alert in case of a Shafik win.”
The new president will emerge with fewer powers than the candidates, pruned by a first round of voting in May, had expected when the army promised civilian rule by July 1.
“Everyone in Egypt is worried. The army must know the result and must have taken precautions,” said Ali Mahmoud, a 44-year-old taxi driver, worried like many Egyptians that months of turmoil is not over yet. “If Shafik wins, we will have a lot of problems. If Mursi wins then protests should be less.”
The ruling military council, which pushed Mubarak aside on February 11, 2011 to appease the protesters in the streets, has stripped the presidency of many powers and dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament elected in January.
Yet the presidency is still a prize, even if the vote may only open a new chapter in what has been a turbulent and often bloody transition overseen by the army since Mubarak fell.
An Islamist president of Egypt would be a major milestone for the Middle East, and near unthinkable 18 months ago. It is far from confirmed, but the military, Brotherhood and other officials have given signs they expect it to happen.
Mursi, a 60-year-old, U.S.-educated engineer and political prisoner under Mubarak, declared victory within hours of polls closing last Sunday - a move condemned by the generals. In a sign of continued confidence, he has already met other groups and drafted an accord to form a national coalition government.
His party issued a statement on Saturday saying it had called on “all partners in the nation, from all movements, to take part in this national platform, to guarantee the success of what we have achieved and their active participation in rebuilding the country in the manner it deserves”.
One of those involved, Abdel Gelil Mostafa of the reformist National Association for Change, told Reuters on Saturday: “We agreed on a general programme, especially for if Morsy won.
By contrast supporters of Shafik, 70, who was Mubarak's last prime minister in his final desperate days, kept a low profile, although he did declare publicly on Thursday he was confident.
A victory for Shafik, who won backing in the run-off from many who decided they liked religious rule even less than a candidate drawn from the familiar military establishment, could spark protests from well-organised Islamist movements, which the army and security forces might confront on the streets.
Indicating concerns about the reaction to any result, an Interior Ministry source said: “There is tight security at vital state institutions, particularly the Interior Ministry. Any assaults will be dealt with according to the law.”
However, there have been indications from senior figures in the Brotherhood and military council that they have prepared for a Mursi presidency in meetings since the election.
While officials deny any negotiation over the long-drawn-out process of tallying the election results themselves, there would be greater scope for compromise to defuse tension over what many have called the army's “soft coup”, against parliament and the powers of the president, if Mursi is made head of state.
The Brotherhood has said it will go on protesting until the military council cancels the dissolution and a decree which gave its legislative powers to itself, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). But were its candidate to be confirmed in office, then the wary symbiosis between the two old enemies, seen since Mubarak was ousted, may continue in a new form.
It is a collaboration that irks many of the secular liberals who led the first wave of the uprising against Mubarak but found themselves fragmented and eliminated in last month's first round of voting, left with a difficult choice between army and Islam.
Hundreds of people were in Tahrir Square on Sunday, both those protesting against the army's refusal to give up power and supporters of Morsy. “Down, down with military rule,” they chanted. Some held up posters of Mursi. The Brotherhood and others have called for an open-ended protest.
The generals have repeatedly said, both to Egyptians and to their close U.S. ally, that they will return to barracks and hand over to civilian rule. But they present themselves as guardians of Egypt's security and long-term interests and moved to block the Islamists from taking more than a share of power.
Their moves in the past 10 days to curb the presidency and hang on to a veto over legislation, as well as to claim a role in drafting a new constitution, mean that the transition process goes on even after the July 1 deadline.
Washington and the European Union, both major aid donors, have expressed concern that the military is backtracking. But both also share its anxiety over a sweeping Islamist takeover, worried about Egypt turning anti-Western and reneging on its peace with Israel, and also voicing concern for civil rights.
Violence by hardline Islamists in Tunisia, whose revolt inspired that in Egypt, has troubled many Egyptian liberals.
Key to the transition to democracy will be drafting a constitution. That work has been hostage to partisan wrangling in the now defunct parliament, where one assembly collapsed after complaints it was too Islamist and a second faces a challenge in court on Tuesday that many expect to trigger a clause in the SCAF decree letting it name a new drafting panel.
The Brotherhood has portrayed itself as a modern movement, ready to work with others and willing to respect treaties. Some supporters cite the example of Turkey as a model - a Muslim democracy with a history of military interference in politics, where devout, elected politicians have slowly asserted control.
The bearded, bespectacled Morsy was not a familiar figure to Egyptians. Some ridicule him as the movement's “spare tyre”; his campaign began after a more senior leader was barred from the race. Critics say he would be a mere front-man as president, for less visible pillars of the Brotherhood behind the scenes. - Reuters