CAIRO (Reuters) - Denouncing a "coup" by Cairo's shadowy military rulers, Egyptian liberals and Islamists said on Friday the dissolution of a first freely elected parliament has thrown the country back into turmoil 16 months the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
Faced with more evidence that the generals who pushed aside Mubarak to appease a popular revolt will not let an Islamist movement they oppressed for decades simply sweep to power, the Muslim Brotherhood warned of "dangerous days" ahead and some compared it to the start of Algeria's civil war in 1992, when its army cancelled an election an Islamist party was winning.
But on the eve of a presidential ballot that may install a Mubarak protege as head of state, few took to the streets and the most potent force opposing the army, the Brotherhood, has urged Egyptians to set aside doubts on its Islamist agenda and support its candidate on Saturday to thwart the old guard.
"All the democratic gains of the revolution could be wiped out and overturned with the handing of power to one of the symbols of the previous era," the Brotherhood said after supreme court judges appointed under Mubarak voided the voting that had given it and hardline Islamist allies a legislative majority.
Yet few analysts saw violent confrontation any time soon.
The ruling seemed to many to reflect unease on the ruling military council that a presidential win for the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy over former general Ahmed Shafik could sink its hopes of retaining army influence over a civilian leadership to which the council, the SCAF, promises to hand power by July 1.
But the Brotherhood, wary of giving any grounds for legal challenges to its bid for the presidency, did not call members on to the streets. Those few who did gather, from secular and other Islamist groups, numbered barely in the hundreds at Tahrir Square in Cairo, birthplace of the revolution, and other sites.
A weariness of chaos and recurrent violence among many of the 82 million Egyptians - as well as worries fueled by hardline Islamist violence in Tunisia, whose revolt inspired the one in Egypt - may have bolstered popular support for Shafik, who served for a month as Mubarak's last prime minister.
Most troubling for many, including foreign investors who have seen Egypt's economy ravaged by disruption and a slump in tourist revenue, may simply be the continuation of uncertainty.
"Whatever the ultimate outcome of these events, the political and policy-making process has been complicated, delaying the likely implementation of the comprehensive macroeconomic and structural reforms needed to kick-start recovery and ease financing strains," said Richard Fox at Fitch Ratings, explaining a downgrade to junk status of Egypt's debt.
And in Washington, a State Department spokeswoman voiced dismay: "We are troubled that yesterday's court ruling did appear to dissolve ... this independent parliament," she said. "If ... this set of parliamentary elections has to be re-run, we want that as quickly as possible and we don't want it to hold up the turning over of power by the SCAF to elected Egyptians."
The European Union also stressed it wanted the legal and political uncertainties sorted out "as soon as possible" and urged all sides to ensure a peaceful, fair presidential ballot.
Enjy Hamdy of the April 6 movement which coordinated pro-democracy protests against Mubarak said: "This all must be seen as a military coup, an attempt by the army to stay in power longer to protect their interests, which we will not accept."
But divisions between liberals and Islamists - highlighted by the splitting of votes among presidential contenders in a first round ballot in May - have hampered efforts to draw up a new constitution and leave many facing a unpalatable choice on Saturday and Sunday between two extremes in Egyptian politics.
Bloodied by Mubarak's security forces in the 1990s, at a time when Algeria's electorally thwarted Islamists were waging a full-scale war that killed some 150,000 people, the 84-year-old Brotherhood has since fought shy of overt confrontation and many doubt whether it would challenge the army with force.
"We are going to be hearing the word Algeria a lot more in the coming days. This is similar to what happened," said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. But he added: "I don't think we are going to see an outbreak of systematic violence."
"It's a huge dilemma for the Brotherhood, how they react," said Nathan Brown of the Carnegie Middle East Program.
"Do they call for a showdown? Or do they settle for the best they can get? These signals we are seeing probably tilt towards dusting themselves down and moving on," he said, adding that the Brotherhood could not count on support from other opposition groups if it confronted the army as many of those who challenged Mubarak were now "as scared of the Brotherhood as the military".
Some liberals even welcomed the latest twist from the judges, hoping for better representation in a new parliament.
"The electoral law was flawed and brought in a flawed parliament," Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, a legislator from the Social Democratic Party, said on his Facebook page. "Parliament had lost much of its stature and credibility ... because of the Islamist parties' misuse of the majority they enjoyed."
Yet with no agreement on how to write a new constitution, no legislature and possibly a head of state who is, again, a former general and product of the armed forces which retain a grip on the economy, many question the military's good faith.
The constitutional court ruled that the election to parliament had failed to observe legal guidelines and rejected a challenge to Shafik's right to run in the presidential ballot.
On top of a new decree empowering the military to arrest civilian protesters, these dismayed many who thought the fall of Mubarak would end six decades of effective army rule.
Many spoke of deep anxiety, but also with defiance.
Wael Ghonim, the Google executive whose arrest during last year's protests rallied the opposition, tweeted: "The only thing that will make us go back to living in fear, oppression and silence is a time machine - they haven't invented that yet."
A few dozen protesters prayed on Tahrir Square. One young man distributed flyers calling on people to cast blank ballots on Saturday: "No to the army, no to the Brotherhood," it read.
Morsy pledged to press ahead with his presidential bid regardless of the court rulings and warned against foul play of the type that was typical of elections in Mubarak's days.
"If there is any fraud, there will be a huge revolution against the criminals ... a huge revolution until we realize the complete goals of the January 25 revolution," he said, referring to the date of the start of the uprising against Mubarak last year.
But the suggestion that Shafik, a former air force commander like Mubarak, might win thanks to fraud overlooks the success of his tough law-and-order message and secular credentials.
To its critics, the Brotherhood's inability to rally a revolutionary coalition behind Morsy betrays an arrogance and lack of compromise that has put off many of the Egyptians who respected its pledges to tackle corruption and work for social justice and who handed it a commanding position in parliament.
The future could scarcely be less clear.
"The SCAF ... may look to have won this seemingly decisive round. But it's not the endgame. It's only the beginning of a new phase of a horribly mismanaged 'transition' that is coming to its well-earned end," said Marc Lynch, associate professor at George Washington University, in a Foreign Policy magazine blog.
But referring to history, including the army's crushing of the Brotherhood in 1954, he asked: "What's next?
"A replay of Algeria in 1991? A return to January 25, 2011? Back to 1954? A return to the petulant slow fail of latter-days Mubarak? An alien invasion using nano-weapons and transgalactic wormholes in the pyramids? Nobody really seems to know."
(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad, Patrick Werr, Tom Perry, Edmund Blair, Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul in Cairo and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul)