CAIRO - Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood pinned its hopes Friday on weekend elections to salvage its waning political fortunes, responding to a court order dissolving its power base in parliament by urging voters to support the Islamist group's candidate for president.
The runoff vote set for Saturday and Sunday pits Ahmed Shafiq, a military-rooted strongman promising a firm hand to ensure stability, against Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi.
The Islamist movement has seen its fortunes rise and fall dramatically in the 16 months since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. Repressed under the old regime, it rose to become the strongest political force in parliament after elections that started in November only to lose that power when the legislature was dissolved by court order on Thursday.
The Brotherhood is now hoping to salvage its position by portraying itself as the last bulwark against the ousted president's loyalists bent on a comeback.
"Isolate the representative of the former regime through the ballot box," a Brotherhood statement said on Friday, referring to Shafiq. It was published just before the noon deadline to end campaigning.
Some activists took to Cairo's main squares to protest the court ruling. Morsi said in a Thursday news conference the Brothers would focus on the vote instead. "We are going to the ballot boxes to say 'no' to the losers, the killers, the criminals," he said, referring to Mubarak-era officials.
At the same time the Brotherhood made overtures to the country's military council — widely perceived as favouring ex-air force commander Shafiq. Morsi gave assurances that he would work closely with the country's military rulers and keep the interests of the armed forces at heart.
"As president, they will be in my heart and will get my attention. ... They will never do anything to harm the nation," he said Thursday.
The Brotherhood is reeling after the ruling from the Supreme constitutional Court that dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament, where its party held the most seats. The court found the law governing parliamentary elections was unconstitutional as it allowed party members to contest a third of the seats set aside for independents.
The court also threw out legislation that would have banned Shafiq as a senior former Mubarak official from running.
Last year's parliamentary elections were seen as Egypt's first democratic balloting in generations. Thursday's court decision erased their outcome and left the country without a legislature.
The Brotherhood said that that progress made since Mubarak was ousted was being "wiped out and overturned." The country is facing a situation that is "even more dangerous than that in the final days of Mubarak's rule."
Shafiq, in his final days of campaigning, has played on fears that the Brotherhood would try to impose a hardline version of Islamic law and curb the rights of women and Christians.
"We want a parliament that realistically represents all segments of the Egyptian people and a civil state whose borders and legitimacy are protected by our valiant armed forces," he said Thursday, visibly energized by the court's rulings.
It is unclear how the dissolution of parliament will affect the race. It could bolster the Brotherhood's Morsi, who now represents for many the only option to challenge decades of military power.
In contrast, it could also boost Shafiq, believed to be the military's preferred candidate backed by strong resources. Many voters also see Shafiq as the only hope for a secular state.
Security is being beefed up around polling stations nationwide with more than double the number of troops and police compared to last month's first-round vote. According to security officials, there will be around 200,000 policemen and 200,000 soldiers deployed to secure an election that may see violence flare.
In addition, more than 200 policemen were deployed Friday outside parliament to block lawmakers from entering.
On the eve of the vote, power appears concentrated even more firmly in the hands of the generals who took over from Mubarak.
The dissolution of parliament is seen as helping the military retain this power beyond the presidential vote, even though it has pledged to transfer authority to whomever is elected.
An unnamed judicial source quoted in the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper's website said that the military will keep legislative powers and control over state finances until either a new parliament is elected or a new constitution is written.
The military council might also appoint a panel to draft a new constitution. The Brotherhood-dominated parliament was on the verge of selecting a panel when it was dissolved.
This week, the government appointed by the generals allowed military, police and intelligence agents to arrest civilians for a wide range of offences — a throwback to harsh practices of the deposed regime. The government said the measure was temporary.
Activists who engineered Egypt's uprising have long noted that after 60 years as the nation's most dominant institution, the military would be reluctant to surrender its authority or open its vast economic empire to civilian scrutiny.
Faced with a possible Shafiq election win and a military that may retain its powers long after the election, one of the youth groups, the April 6 movement, threw its support behind Morsi.
It planned a march to Cairo's Tahrir Square Friday afternoon dubbed "No to the military's soft coup." The Brotherhood, in line with its strategy of focusing on elections, did not call on its members to participate.
Around 500 people took part in the protest, tearing down a large Shafiq poster that they stomped on and had cars drive over. The protesters, who were joined by some ultraconservative Salafis, chanted "Down with military rule!"
But other leftist, liberal and secular forces who launched the pro-democracy uprising bemoaned the choice between an Islamist and a former regime figure, and some talked of a boycott.
The ruling generals warned Friday they would "deal firmly" with anyone who tries to prevent citizens from voting, according to the state run Al-Ahram.
Egyptians living abroad already cast ballots earlier in June. The Brotherhood claims to have won a "landslide victory" and says Morsi won 75 per cent of those valid votes. The group did not release exact figures, and official results have not been announced.
Associated Press correspondent Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.