CAIRO — Thousands of supporters of Egyptian presidential contender Ahmed Shafik on Saturday held their largest demonstration to date in support of their candidate and the country’s ruling military council, one day before the election commission is scheduled to release the official results of last weekend’s presidential balloting.
Miles away, supporters of Shafik’s rival, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, gathered in similar numbers in Tahrir Square.
The competing protests captured how divisive the election, which pit the long-banned Brotherhood against Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, has been.
Two Egypts were visible in the dueling rallies. Buses transported the Morsi demonstrators to Tahrir Square; Shafik backers arrived in their own cars. Shafik supporters were given bottles of water, the Morsi backers bought from street vendors.
And in a nation where the average monthly salary is roughly $200, Shafik supporters, many dressed in clothes common in Cairo’s wealthier districts, captured the festive protest on their iPads. Indeed, celebrities and elites who thrive in the status quo peppered the crowd.
Most notably, hundreds of soldiers and members of the central security forces lined the streets around the Shafik protest; they were absent at the Tahrir, where their presence would likely have irritated already angry crowds. Their presence at the Shafik rally suggested that the military council had helped organize or at least endorsed the gathering., though attendees insisted it had been spontaneous.
“The people and the army are one hand,” Shafik supporters chanted.
Besides the presidency, at stake for Egypt was the role of the military, which has governed Egypt both from the shadows and directly since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. Those who support Morsi reject the military council’s dissolution of Parliament two weeks ago in response to a court ruling and its subsequent amending of the temporary constitution to remove the new president’s authority over the military. Supporters of Shafik, himself a retired air force general, believe the ruling council is the best guarantor of the state, especially in the face of Brotherhood-led presidency.
Even though the Muslim Brotherhood is considered anti-American and anti-Israeli, it was Shafik supporters who repeatedly chanted against alleged U.S. intervention. They repeated charges that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke ill of the Egyptian army last December when in response to soldiers infamously dragging a woman protester along the streets, exposing her blue br, Clinton denounced the “systematic degradation” of women as a disgrace to Egypt.
The Shafik supporters also claimed that the United States was trying to shape the election outcome. “The Brotherhood is allies with the Americans,” they chanted as they gathered along a highway leading to the airport. The site was near the grave of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who was gunned down by Muslim extremists during a military parade.
“No to American interference in our affairs,” Mohammed Abu Hamad, a one time revolutionary parliamentarian who recently changed his support to Shafik, said in a speech to the screaming crowd.
Nasr Qaraa, 54, a mechanical engineer, said he supported the military’s decision to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament, even though its seating last fall marked Egypt’s first democratic election. Qaraa said he believes Egypt should abide by the court’s finding. And he also backed the military’s consolidation of power.
“To meet the revolution’s objectives, we have to reduce the president’s authority,” he said.
Mohammed al Essawy, 33, once considered himself a revolutionary. But the prospect of the Brotherhood leading Egypt drew him to the rally, where Egyptians sang, danced and set off fireworks.
“The army forces ousted the regime and without the army, the revolution would have never succeeded,” he said.
Earlier Saturday, the election commission, whose leader is a Mubarak appointee, vowed to release results Sunday, one week after Egyptians cast their ballots. But the results have already been delayed and some analysts said they believed the Brotherhood and the military council were negotiating a power sharing agreement behind the scenes.
Unofficial results released by the Morsi campaign or reported by newspapers have showed Morsi with about 52 percent of the vote. But the military council has criticized Mosri’s declaration of victory ahead of the release of official results.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.