Judges appointed by Hosni Mubarak dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament Thursday and ruled that Mubarak's former prime minister can stand in the presidential runoff this weekend — setting the stage for the military and remnants of the old regime to stay in power.
The rulings effectively erase the tenuous progress from the past year's troubled transition, leaving Egypt with no parliament and concentrating rule even more firmly in the hands of the military generals who took power after Mubarak's ouster.
The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, which stands to lose the most from the rulings, called the moves a coup and vowed to rally the street against the ruling military and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, the presidential candidate seen by critics as a favorite of the generals and a symbol of Mubarak's autocratic rule.
As night fell, a crowd of protesters was rapidly growing in Cairo's Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that toppled Mubarak last year.
Senior Brotherhood leader and lawmaker Mohammed el-Beltagy said the rulings amounted to a "full-fledged coup."
"This is the Egypt that Shafiq and the military council want and which I will not accept no matter how dear the price is," he wrote on his Facebook page.
The decisions were a heavy blow to the Brotherhood. In the parliamentary elections late last year — Egypt's first democratic ones in generations — the Brotherhood vaulted to become the biggest party in the legislature, with half the seats, alongside more conservative Islamists who took another 20 percent. It is hoping to win the presidency as well with its candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in this weekend's presidential run-off against Shafiq. The rulings now take away their power base in parliament and boost Shafiq.
But the court rulings also derail the broader transition to democracy, said rights lawyer Hossam Bahgat.
"The military placed all powers in its hands. The entire process has been undermined beyond repair," Bahgat said. "They now have the legislative and the executive powers in their hands and there is a big likelihood that the military-backed candidate (Shafiq) is going to win. It is a soft military coup that unfortunately many people will support out of fear of an Islamist takeover of the state."
A day earlier, the military-appointed government gave the military police and intelligence the right to arrest civilians for a range of vague crimes such as disrupting traffic and the economy that would give it a mandate to crack down on protests. Many saw the move as evidence the generals are aiming to hold on to power beyond the July 1 deadline they announced for handing it over to a civilian president.
Throughout the day Thursday, military armored vehicles circulated through the streets of Cairo, playing patriotic songs, as soldiers passed out leaflets urging passers-by to vote in the presidential run-off Saturday and Sunday. The rulings also mean that the next president of Egypt will be sworn before the generals who took over from Mubarak 16 months ago rather than parliament.
After the Supreme Constitutional Court's decision was announced, a visibly energized Shafiq spoke at a rally that had the trappings of a victory celebration. Supporters chanted "We love you, Mr. President," and the 70-year-old Shafiq blew kisses to them. In his address, he lavished praise on the military and said he hoped for a dramatic shakeup in the makeup of the next parliament.
"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," said Shafiq, a longtime friend of Mubarak and a self-confessed admirer of the ousted leader.
The race for the presidency has already deeply polarized the country. The anti-Shafiq camp views him as an extension of Mubarak's authoritarian regime. The anti-Morsi camp fears he and the Brotherhood will turn Egypt into an Islamic state and curtail freedoms if he wins. Leftist, liberal and secular Egyptians who first launched the pro-democracy uprising against Mubarak bemoaned the choice and some talked of a boycott.
Now they and the Brotherhood were all accusing the military of using the constitutional court as a proxy to change the rules of the game.
In its decisions Thursday, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that a third of the legislature was elected illegally. As a result, it says in its explanation of the ruling, "the makeup of the entire chamber is illegal and, consequently, it does not legally stand."
The explanation was carried by Egypt's official news agency and confirmed to The Associated Press by one of the court's judges, Maher Sami Youssef.
The law governing the parliamentary elections was ruled unconstitutional by a lower court because it breached the principle of equality when it allowed party members to contest a third of seats set aside for independents. The remaining two thirds were contested by party slates.
In a separate ruling, the court said Shafiq could stay in the presidential race, rejecting a law passed by parliament last month that barred prominent figures from the old regime from running for office.
Defenders of the law argued that after a revolution aimed at removing Mubarak's rule, parliament had a right to prevent regime members from returning to power. Opponents of the law called it political revenge targeting Shafiq. The court said the law was not based on "objective grounds" and was discriminatory, violating "the principle of equality."
"This historic ruling sends the message that the era of score-settling and tailor-made law is over," Shafiq said at his rally.
Now, elections will have to be organized to choose a new parliament — and the Brotherhood is in a weaker position than it was during its powerful showing in the first election, held over three months starting last November.
After its election victory, the Brotherhood tried to translate those gains into governing power but was repeatedly stymied by the military's grip.
At the same time, there has been widespread public dissatisfaction with the Islamist-led parliament, which many criticized as ineffective. The Brotherhood's popularity has also declined because of moves that critics saw as attempts to monopolize the political scene and advance its own power. It angered liberals, leftists and secular Egyptians when it and other Islamists tried to dominate a parliament-created panel tasked with writing the next constitution. The panel was dissolved by court order, and a new one had yet to be appointed.
The dissolution of parliament now raises the possibility the military council could appoint the panel, a step that would fuel accusations that it is hijacking the process.
The legal adviser of the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood's political arm, said the court rulings were "political," lamenting the outgoing legislature as the country's "only legitimate and elected body."
"They are hoping to hand it over to Ahmed Shafiq and make him the only legal authority in the absence of parliament. The people will not accept this and we will isolate the toppled regime," Mukhtar el-Ashry said in a posting on the party's website.
A moderate Islamist and a former presidential candidate, Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh, said the rulings amounted to a "coup" and warned that the youth, pro-democracy groups that engineered the uprising that toppled Mubarak last year would protest the court's rulings.
"Those who believe that the millions of young people will let this pass are fooling themselves," he wrote on his Twitter account.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Report: US expands secret 'shadow war' in Africa
- UK PM grilled over links to Rupert Murdoch's empire
- NBC's Richard Engel answers your questions on Syria
- Transgender pageant winner murdered in South Africa
- 'Maple Spring' student protests: Crackdown roils Quebec
- 'Forest boy' mystery: Stumped cops release photo
- Shot in the dark: Blinded sailor aims for Paralympics
- Survey: World's opinion of US, Obama slips
Follow us on Twitter: