CAIRO -- With its Tuesday afternoon ruling that dissolved Egypt's parliament and ensured that Ahmed Shafik will remain a presidential candidate, Egypt's Constitutional Court plunged the country's upcoming runoff election into a chaotic mix of confusion, despair and accusations of a military coup.
Because of his close ties to the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, in which he served as prime minister before the 2011 revolution, Shafik faced the possibility of being barred under Parliament's election law if it was upheld.
Instead, the court not only allowed Shafik's candidacy to move ahead, but declared the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament null and void. The legislature would have served as a potential check on Shafik's power if he won the presidency, leading many voters, activists, and politicians to fear the return of a Mubarak-style dictatorship supported by the military.
"Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup. We'd be outraged if we weren't so exhausted," wrote analyst Hossam Bahgat on Twitter after the decision.
Accusations arose almost as soon as the verdict was handed down around 2 p.m. Tuesday in Cairo. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who took fourth place in the first round of presidential voting in May, called the decision an "unacceptable coup" while on cable news channel Al Jazeera.
He was joined in the charge by Mohamed Beltagy, one of the Brotherhood's members of Parliament, while prominent politician Mohamed El Baradei appeared on rival channel Al Arabiya to demand the formation of a presidential council that would prevent Shafik from taking absolute power.
Despite the ruling, the Brotherhood hinted that a showdown looms over the Parliament's dismissal. The group's official Twitter feed said shortly after the verdict that "parliament is staying." It later clarified that the group believed the court had overstepped its bounds.
"Supreme Court doesn't have the power to dissolve the parliament, it only decides on constitutionality of the laws," the group wrote.
Tahrir Square, the focal point of the demonstrations that toppled Mubarak, remained mostly empty throughout Thursday evening. But with widespread anger over the decision bleeding into the weekend, Egyptians could take to the streets to oppose the ruling Friday, the largest day for protests during the revolution.
However, Mohamed Morsi, Shafik's opponent from the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared on Egypt's Dream TV Thursday night to confirm that the Brotherhood would contest the election as planned. He soft-pedaled the notion of a military coup during the interview, saying that he loved the armed forces and plainly stating that, "I do not consider this as a military coup."
In a triumphant address Thursday afternoon, Shafik told supporters that "today's ruling shows there is no way for anyone to ever violate the rights of any citizen." He stuck largely to stump-speech lines and promises to boost economic development. As he pledged to be a "servant" to the entire country, Shafik's speech pointedly ignored the dissolution of Parliament and the questions it raised about the elections.
And while he pledged to be open to reconciliation, Shafik seemed to hint he would have no problem using violence to prevent demonstrations against him. "I will oppose attacks on transportation, storming of buildings, all we have faced in the past 18 months will be stopped," he said.
By midday Thursday, a crowd of no more than 200 protesters, joined by a heavy media presence, had gathered opposite the lines of police, armored vehicles, and barbed wire that surrounded the court. A knot of demonstrators chanted slogans, pledging to martyr themselves in the fight against Shafik, but the small crowd seemed otherwise more interested than angry.
Hossam Ahmad arrived at the protest wearing a socialist flag as a cape and called for strikes against the regime and the "political court." But when asked if the court should allow Shafik to remain in the election, he offered only a resigned, "of course."
Other demonstrators believed that the old regime would win no matter the outcome, seeing little difference between Shafik and Morsi. "If they uphold the law, it means SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] will rule longer, and if they don't, it means someone from the old regime will run the country," said Omar Afif Mohamed, a financial analyst who voted for liberal candidate Khaled Ali in the first round.
When the decision was handed down, riot police staged outside the court went largely untested. While brief skirmishes broke out between small groups of protesters and police, the crowd mostly chanted slogans and then dissolved.
Summing up the deflated feelings of many revolutionaries, Ahmed Hawary, who attended the demonstration at the court, said, "it feels like I'm being kicked out of my own country again."
Sitting in a cafe in Cairo's Felaky Square after the decision, Heba Gowayed attempted to process the court ruling Thursday afternoon.
"I've just got a string of expletives running through my head right now," she said, distractedly smoking a cigarette. "Is this another Syria? I don't think people have it in them to spend another 18 days in [Tahrir] Square."
Gowayed, a graduate student, sighed while she picked up the pack of Marlboros again. "I heard it and I immediately knew this was a coup d'etat."