By Tom Pfeiffer and Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO (Reuters) - Denouncing a "coup" by Cairo's shadowy military rulers, Egyptian liberals and Islamists readied mass protests on Friday against the dissolution of the parliament elected after last year's overthrow of veteran general Hosni Mubarak.
On the eve of a presidential vote that could see a Mubarak protege become head of state, the most potent force opposing the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, warned of dangerous days and some drew parallels with the start of the Algerian civil war 20 years ago, when generals scrapped an election Islamists were winning.
"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," said Enjy Hamdy of the April 6 movement which coordinated pro-democracy protests against Mubarak.
Reactions on the streets have so far been muted to Thursday's ruling by Mubarak-era judges that voided the election over the winter that returned a legislature dominated by the Brotherhood and their hardline Islamist allies.
But as a heatwave took hold along the Nile, keeping many indoors on the first day of the Egyptian weekend, the military authorities and their critics were preparing for a possible mass turnout after dark at central Cairo's Tahrir Square, birthplace of a revolution which many democrats now fear was stillborn.
The Brotherhood, however, still hopes its candidate Mohamed Morsy can defeat Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister, in the presidential election on Saturday and Sunday, and it made no public call for demonstrations that might disrupt a runoff which liberals say has left them an unpalatable choice of extremes, following defeats for centrists in May's first round of voting.
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 Muslim 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."
Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, a moderate defector from the Brotherhood who was among those knocked out in May, called the latest judicial moves a "total coup" and said Egyptians must gather to "reject the re-establishment of the old regime".
But in a mark of the chaotic uncertainty reigning 16 months after fellow generals pushed Mubarak aside to the delight of the millions who marched for democracy in the "Arab Spring", some liberals, who fear Islamist domination, welcomed the latest twist, 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 in a promise to cede power to freely elected civilians by July 1.
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.
"Who says the revolution has been 'aborted'?" tweeted online activist Iyad al-Baghdadi. "Abortions happen when the baby is not born - but the revolution was indeed born. The revolution is not in the square, but in our hearts and minds."
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 after noon on Friday, the time for Muslims' weekly devotions. One young man distributed flyers calling on people to cast blank ballots on Saturday: "No to the army, no to the Brotherhood," it read.
BROTHERHOOD SEES "DIFFICULT DAYS"
The Brotherhood, upbeat on Morsy's chances given its powerful campaign machine, said on Thursday the court rulings indicated Egypt was heading into "very difficult days that might be more dangerous than the last days of Mubarak's rule".
"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," it said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States, long wary of Islamists and source of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt each year, expected the armed forces, in the form of the SCAF ruling council led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to hand power to a democratically elected civilian government.
But reactions to the dissolution betrayed the bitter divisions between opponents of Mubarak's old order that could make it easier to counter opposition to a Shafik presidency.
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, which play well among those of the 82 million Egyptians tired of violence and political chaos.
He has pledged to uphold the spirit of last year's popular uprising, drawing scorn among the young revolutionaries who led it, but a more mitigated response by some liberally minded Egyptians suspicious of the Brotherhood.
The Brotherhood, which says it will maintain democracy and work peacefully to build a just Islamic society, goes into Saturday's vote on the back foot after winning only grudging support for Morsy's candidacy from one of the beaten candidates.
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.
Efforts to form a constitutional assembly to write a new basic law on which to build Egypt's first democratic political system foundered when liberals and others walked out, saying the Brotherhood was stuffing the new body so full of Islamists that the new constitution could never fully reflect Egyptian society.
That leaves the new president, whoever he is, without a parliament to which to swear allegiance and huge question marks over the powers he can exercise given a constitutional vacuum that gives great influence with judges appointed under Mubarak - though independent legal experts said their rulings had grounds.
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."
(Writing by Edmund Blair and Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Samia Nakhoul)