Cairo - Allegations of fraud delayed the result of Egypt's presidential election on Thursday, fraying nerves as the Muslim Brotherhood, which claims victory, threatened to take to the streets in protest at moves by the ruling generals to deny them power.
For a second night, thousands of protesters gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square, cauldron of the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago, to demand that the officers who pushed him aside keep their word and hand over to civilians by July 1.
Though there is little sign that will happen after the ruling military council dissolved the Islamist-led parliament and set strict limits on the new president's powers, prominent Islamists sought to dampen talk of violence, for all their promise of permanent town square vigils until their demands are met.
The state election committee has spent four days collating counts from the two-day runoff ballot but said it would miss a target of Thursday for announcing the result as it was going through hundreds of complaints submitted by either side. As the weekend starts on Friday, that might mean a wait until Sunday.
"We are taking our time to review the appeals to investigate them properly but, God willing, the results will be announced by Sunday at most, if not before that," Judge Maher el-Beheiry, a member of the election committee, told Reuters.
The candidates, Ahmed Shafik, a former general and Mubarak aide, and the Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsy have both called for national unity.
Cairo's cafes and social media were alive with chatter about troops preparing to secure major cities, but military sources denied any unusual activity beyond an alertness in case of trouble from supporters of whichever side loses the election.
Adding to unease, Mubarak was himself back in the news. He was let out of the prison where he began a life sentence this month for treatment at a military hospital. Security sources said the 84-year-old was slipping in and out of a coma but "stabilising". Many Egyptians suspect the generals are exaggerating to get their old comrade out of jail.
The uncertainty has continued to take its toll on the economy. The pound has hit a seven-year low against the dollar.
Old fears of rigging
In a nation where vote-rigging was the norm during 60 years of military rule, and which is reeling from what critics called a "soft coup" by the generals in the past week, the delay announcing a result fuelled mutual suspicions of foul play.
"There is absolutely no justification for the result of the vote to be delayed," Muslim Brotherhood leader Essam el-Erian told Al-Jazeera on Wednesday, describing complaints from the Shafik camp as either invalid or too few to affect the result.
"I call on General Shafik, who learned chivalry in the Egyptian army, to come out tonight and congratulate the real winner, Dr. Mohamed Morsy," Erian added, while dismissing talk of violence.
"There is absolutely no reason for a civil war," he said.
Morsy said within hours of polls closing last Sunday that he beat Shafik by 52 percent to 48 percent, a figure the Brotherhood has stuck to, citing its detailed collation of local results.
Shafik's camp said on Wednesday it remained confident that its man, whom Mubarak appointed prime minister during the uprising, would win, although a spokesman for Shafik also described the vote as "too close to call".
The spokesman accused the Brotherhood of divisive tactics by trying to pre-empt the state election committee, but pledged to honour any result: "In the event that candidate Morsy is indeed successful," he said, "the first telephone call that he will receive will be from candidate Shafik."
If defeated, Shafik would be willing to serve in a Brotherhood government or other post, he said, and if victorious, the former air force commander would appoint an Islamist as one of three vice presidents as well as offer ministerial posts to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The election showed strong support on both sides of the run-off after many Egyptians were disappointed by the elimination of other candidates in last month's first round, but many voted negatively - against Shafik because he was of the old government, or against Morsy and the prospect of religious rule.
The young, secular urban activists who were inspired by the overthrow of Tunisia's dictator to rise up against Mubarak in the Arab Spring have been dismayed by the success of the Muslim Brotherhood, based on its decades of clandestine organisation. But many put aside their qualms to back Morsy in the run-off.
"Any attempt to impose Shafik, any attempt at manipulation by the military council to impose him on us, will take Egypt into a period of instability and tension," Ahmed Maher of the April 6 youth protest movement told Reuters.
"We will take to the streets and protest."
Whoever is declared winner, the next president's powers have already been curbed in the last-minute decree issued by the army after it ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament.
The European Union on Wednesday joined the United States, both major aid donors, in expressing "concern" at what the army moves meant for a promised transition to democracy. But with the Egyptian army still, as it was throughout Mubarak's 30 years in power, a major ally in the confrontation with militant Islam, Western pressure on Cairo's generals may be limited.
On Tuesday, election monitors from the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who brokered the peace between Egypt and Israel that unlocked U.S. aid, said they could not call the election free and fair as they were denied sufficient access to polling stations and results collation.
Brotherhood supporters and others staged a protest on Tuesday against the army's decree to limit the president's role and retain powers. A movement official, Osama Yassin, said on Wednesday he was calling on supporters to set up open-ended vigils in town squares across the nation to make their demands.
"We reject the overturning of the popular will," he said.
But Saad al-Katatni, speaker of the dissolved parliament, said the Brotherhood would not fight back with violence the way Algerian Islamists did after the army there cancelled a vote they had won in 1992, touching off a decade of bloody civil war.
"We are fighting a legal struggle via the establishment and a popular struggle in the streets," Katatni said. "This is the ceiling. I see the continuation of the struggle in this way," he told Reuters in the first interview since the dissolution.
"What happened in Algeria cannot be repeated in Egypt."