World Bulletin / News Desk
Egypt's military rulers dismissed complaints from protesters on Friday that it was entrenching its rule and blamed the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate for stirring up emotions that drew thousands onto Cairo's Tahrir Square.
In a brusque four-minute statement read on state television as Egyptians returned from weekly prayers - and as the revolutionary bastion of Tahrir was chanting for democracy - the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) made clear it had no plan to heed their calls to cancel a decree extending its powers or reverse its dissolution of the new, Islamist-led parliament.
"The issuance of the supplementary constitutional decree was necessitated by the needs of administering the affairs of the state during this critical period in the history of our nation," the off-screen announcer said, in the bureaucratic language favoured by the generals who pushed aside brother officer Hosni Mubarak last year to appease the angry millions on the streets.
In what were menacing tones for the army's old adversary the Muslim Brotherhood, SCAF said people were free to protest - but only if they did not disrupt daily life. And it called the premature announcement of results in last weekend's presidential election "unjustifiable" and a prime cause of the tension.
Both comments target the Islamists more than other groups and the Brotherhood was quick to hit back. It denounced the military's actions themselves as "unconstitutional". Deadlock between Egypt's two strongest forces seemed to be hardening, raising grave doubts on the prospects for consensual democracy.
The SCAF statement read: "Anticipating the announcement of the presidential election results before they are announced officially is unjustifiable, and is one of the main causes of division and confusion prevailing the political arena."
It also said the army had no power to repeal the dissolution of parliament, saying that was down to judges who ruled that some of January's election rules were unconstitutional:
"The verdicts issued by the judiciary are executed in the name of the people and refraining from implementing these verdicts is a crime punishable by law," it said, a warning to Islamists who are challenging the dissolution. Critics say the judges were appointed under Mubarak and so are not impartial.
The Brotherhood is mounting protest vigils on town squares to demand the reversal of the decree and the dissolution. It also fears a delay in announcing the result of the presidential election indicates an attempt to cheat - though opponents say it is the Islamists who are not playing fair.
The Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy and former general Ahmed Shafik have both said they believe they have won last weekend's run-off ballot.
The delay in publication of results, due on Thursday but not now expected until at least Saturday, has heightened anxiety on all sides, although all sides say they will protest peacefully.
Mohamed Beltagy, senior member of the Brotherhood, told Reuters the movement would continue to reject SCAF's decree, which was issued as polls closed on Sunday, two days after a court gave the military grounds to dissolve the new parliament.
"The military council is calling for respect for the legitimacy of the state and its laws, but we are asking for there first to be respect for the legitimacy of the parliamentary election and the will of the people," he said.
"The Brotherhood restates its rejection of the constitutional declaration, which is itself unconstitutional," Beltagy added. "The military council does not have any legal rights to issue such a decree."
A Shafik spokesman declined comment. Shafik himself called on Thursday for restraint and accused Morsy of trying to pressure the electoral commission by prematurely giving results.
Of the military's latest statement, Hassan Nafaa, a political analyst who was a critic of Mubarak, said: "The military council's statement is intended to scare the people and quell the revolutionary spirit of the nation through the firm authoritarian tone in which the statement was delivered.
"But this will not work because all politically aware civilians refuse the military's stewardship over the state."
"This is a classic counter revolution that will only be countered by the might of protesters," said Safwat Ismail, 43, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who came from the Nile Delta. "I am staying in the square until the military steps down."
Mahmoud Mohammed, a bearded, 31-year-old marine engineer from Alexandria among a group from the Salafist movement camping on the square insisted they were not looking for a battle, but wanted to see democracy installed.
"The people elected a parliament and they put it in the rubbish bin. We need the army to hand over," he said, adding: "No one came here for a fight. We need democracy."
Though tension is real across the country, many of Egypt's 82 million people are weary of turmoil and economic crisis, so it is unclear how large protests might become - though the Brotherhood alone has formidable reserves and capacities.
On Friday, most people appeared to be staying at home and passing Friday's Muslim weekend as normal, though once the fierce sun goes down, gatherings might grow.
At Tahrir, the broad traffic interchange by the Nile in central Cairo was filled with makeshift tents offering shade from the midday sun, hawkers offering an array of goods from tea to "I Love Tahrir Square" T-shirts. Many knelt in prayer during the weekly service. Large groups of pious Islamists were bussed in from the provinces by their parties.
The crowd chanted and waved Egyptian flags.