CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Islamists claimed a narrow lead on Monday in vote-counting for the presidential election but the generals who have run the country since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak issued new rules that made clear real power remains with the army.
A decree from the ruling military council, published as the count got under way on Sunday, spelled out only limited powers for the new head of state and reclaimed for itself the lawmaking prerogatives held by the Islamist-led parliament which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved last week.
Liberal and Islamist opponents denounced a "military coup".
The Muslim Brotherhood, vowing to reject the moves, said that Mohamed Morsy, its candidate for the presidency, led former general Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister, by 51 to 49 percent, with votes in from a quarter of electoral districts.
There was no official tally. Shafik aides were cautious, but one campaigner said Morsy did have a lead, though not a big one. A preliminary result could emerge a few hours into Monday.
The council's "constitutional declaration", issued under powers it took for itself after pushing aside Mubarak to appease street protests 16 months ago, was a blow to democracy, said many who aired their grievances on social media, a favored weapon in the Arab Spring that ended Mubarak's 30-year rule.
"Grave setback for democracy and revolution," tweeted former U.N. diplomat and Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei.
"SCAF retains legislative power, strips president of any authority over army and solidifies its control," he said.
"The 'unconstitutional declaration' continues an outright military coup," tweeted Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a moderate Islamist knocked out in the first round of the presidential election last month. "We have a duty to confront it."
A Facebook page whose young activists helped launch the uprising mocked the army's order, noting Egypt would have a head of state with no control over his own armed forces: "It means the president is elected but has no power," one comment read.
The order from Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chairman to the Supreme Council, indicated that the army, which also controls swathes of Egypt's economy, has no intention of handing substantial power now to its old adversary the Brotherhood.
"SCAF will carrying legislative responsibilities ... until a new parliament is elected," the council's order said.
It raised a question of how, even if a civilian head of state is sworn in this week, Tantawi can claim to have met his own deadline of July 1 for relinquishing control - a deadline the armed forces' major patron and paymaster the United States had stressed in recent days it was expecting him to respect.
Washington and Egypt's European allies, also major providers of aid to the most populous Arab state, had voiced concern when Tantawi, backed by a judicial ruling from a court appointed under Mubarak, dissolved the parliament elected in January in which the Brotherhood and hardline Islamists had a big majority.
However, the Western powers - and many of Egypt's 82 million people - are also uneasy about the rise of Islamists in Cairo, as in other new democracies of the Arab Spring, notably Tunisia and Libya, and so are unlikely to sanction the generals for now.
The failure of the new parliament to agree a consensus body to draft a constitution - liberals accuse the Islamists of packing the panel with religious zealots - has left Egyptians picking their way from revolution to democracy through a legal maze while the generals control the map and change it at will.
Under the latest order, writing of the new constitution may pass to a body appointed by the SCAF - if a court rules against the contested panel nominated by the now defunct legislature.
Any new constitution would need approval in a referendum, with a new parliamentary election following. By a timetable contained in the decree, it would take another five months or so to complete the planned "transition to democracy".
However, the experience of the past year has left many Egyptians doubting that the military, and what they call the "deep state" stretching across big business, Mubarak-era judges, security officials and the army, will ever hand over control.
"SCAF isn't going to transfer any real power," Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University said on Twitter of the constitutional order. "Back to the beginning."
Turnout, only 46 percent in the first round, appeared to have been no higher for the run-off held over two days.
Many voters were dismayed by an unpalatable choice between a man seen as an heir to Mubarak and the nominee of a religious party committed to reversing liberal social traditions.
Some cast a ballot against both men in protest.
"I'll cross out both Morsy and Shafik because neither deserve to be president," said Saleh Ashour, 40, a shopkeeper in the middle-class Cairo neighborhood of Dokki as he went to vote. "I want to make a statement by crossing out the two names.
"Just staying away is too passive."
Shafik, 70, said he had heeded the lessons of the revolution and offered security and prosperity for all Egyptians. Morsy, 60, tried to widen his appeal beyond the Brotherhood's committed and disciplined base by pledging to preserve a pluralist democracy and finally end a history of military rule.
In the second city, Alexandria, computer engineer Sameh Youssef, 30, was wary of Islamist rule but wanted to honor the dead of an uprising launched by frustrated young urbanites: "I will vote Morsy," he said. "Not because I like him but because I hate Shafik. Between us and Shafik there is blood."
In Old Cairo, however, 56-year-old physician Khalil Nagih echoed the sentiments of many, including Christians like himself, whose mistrust of the Brotherhood and desire for an end to a year of chaos outweighed anxiety about the army's role:
"I chose Shafik because he has experience of administration and was an officer. He is a straight talker and he speaks to all communities. He says he'll solve our problems and I believe him. Morsy will bring a religious state and take Egypt backwards."
The Brotherhood has contested the army's power to dissolve parliament and warned of "dangerous days". But though some have compared events to those in Algeria 20 years, which ended in civil war between the military and Islamists, many doubt that the Brotherhood has an appetite for such violence at present.
Monitors said they had seen only minor and scattered breaches of election rules but not the kind of systematic fraud that tainted elections under Mubarak, despite mutual accusations of irregularities by the rival camps.
A win for Shafik may prompt street protests by the Islamists and some of the disillusioned urban youths who made Cairo's Tahrir Square their battleground last year. Should Morsy prevail, he is set to be frustrated by an uncooperative army.
(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Tom Pfeiffer, Edmund Blair, Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul in Cairo and Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)