CAIRO, Egypt — At the threshold of choosing a new leader after 30 years of authoritarian rule, Egypt is now looking more than ever like it did before — a country run by a corrupt political elite, dominated by the military.
Egyptians will head to the polls today in the second and final round of presidential elections between two candidates: the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, and former prime minister and air-force commander, Ahmed Shafiq, who served under ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
But now, further marring the already controversial election process, is a series of judicial pronouncements that many here say have essentially turned the clock back on the revolution.
After 16 months of a rocky, military-led transition to democratic rule — in which protesters died, free elections were held and political battles were fought — Egypt’s military police were granted on Tuesday sweeping, indefinite powers of arrest, and its elected, Islamist-led parliament dissolved.
More from GlobalPost: Was Egypt's revolution just a military coup?
Now, with no legislature, no constitution, and elections being held for a president with yet-to-be-defined powers, Egypt’s fate once again lies squarely in the hands of the military rulers that assumed power during the uprising, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
“We are returning to Jan. 24, 2011,” said Amr Darag, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader in Cairo, in reference to Egypt’s political environment on the day before the first anti-Mubarak protests.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had held the most seats in the recently elected parliament, which was annulled on Thursday by the Mubarak-appointed Supreme Constitutional Court for the illegal way in which one-third of the assembly’s seats were contested.
The court also struck down a parliament-drafted law that would have excluded Mubarak-era officials from running for Egypt’s top post, removing all obstacles for Shafiq, whom many believe SCAF supports, to become president.
The moves by Egypt’s highest court also appear to confirm the suspicions among democracy activists that the more powerful elements of the Mubarak regime never really disappeared.
While Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison on June 2 for failing to prevent the killing of more than 800 protesters during the uprising last year, six interior ministry police and security chiefs were acquitted of ordering forces to fire on the demonstrators.
More from GlobalPost: For Egypt's revolutionaries, the election is the stuff of nightmares
“[The rulings] are a reminder that all those ruling Egypt are Mubarak’s men through and through,” said Noor Ayman, prominent, young anti-regime activist and son of once-imprisoned opposition leader, Ayman Nour.
Like Ayman, many here see the court decisions as a way for the military regime, and its supporters within the government, to consolidate and preserve power ahead of the scheduled June 30 transfer of authority to a civilian president.
“[The military] doesn’t want to have a strongly-empowered parliament that could present a challenge to their rule,” Robert Springborg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, and expert on the Egyptian military, told GlobalPost last month. “They believe they can control the president more directly.”
On Friday, there were small protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — the center of the anti-Mubarak uprising — against the court rulings.
But the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political force, appears to be waiting to see if its candidate, Mohamed Morsi, will be successful in today’s run-offs before opting for a head-on collision with the military-run state.
“If Shafiq wins, there will be a second revolution,” the Brotherhood’s Darag said. “And it will be stronger than the first one.”
More from GlobalPost: Has Egypt's election lost all credibility?
Also on Friday, security forces blocked the roads leading to the parliament building in downtown Cairo, under orders to prevent lawmakers from entering. On the roads from Egypt’s notoriously lawless Sinai Peninsula to the capital, Cairo, a number of fresh army and police checkpoints sprung up in the wake of the court’s decision.
“It is an obvious move on the part of the Constitutional Court, probably with direction from SCAF, to kill the Muslim Brotherhood project [to create] an Islamist government,” said Amir Salem, a human rights lawyer.
After securing the most seats in parliament, the Brotherhood’s political vehicle sought to dominate the new assembly — now also defunct along with parliament — to draft Egypt’s constitution, as well as fielded a presidential candidate after promising not to.
“It’s a political message against the Brotherhood,” Salem said.
Also speaking to GlobalPost last month, Shadi Hamid, a close observer of the Muslim Brotherhood and director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, said the 80-year-old Islamist organization, long persecuted by Egypt’s rulers, is most at home when it is acting as the opposition.
“They’re most comfortable playing the oppositional role of having their backs to the wall, and finding a way to survive,” Hamid said. “They have this bunker mentality that helps rally the troops. They say: ‘Everyone’s against us, but we’re going to win this and are not going to back down.’”
While Brotherhood figures spoke of a “second revolution” if the decisions indeed end up reviving and solidifying the rule of the old regime, the largely liberal-secular activists took a different view.
“[The decisions] are a reminder not that the revolution should continue,” Ayman said. “But that the revolution should begin.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt