Egypt's transition to democracy was thrown into further disarray on Friday after its top court ordered parliament dissolved and allowed a disputed candidate to remain in a divisive presidential runoff.
CAIRO- Activists and political figures have described the rulings as the final phase of a military coup that takes the transition back to square one.
"Back to where you were," read a huge red headline in the independent daily Al-Shorouk.
"A bomb: Shafiq remains and the parliament is void," screamed the liberal Wafd daily.
The Supreme Constitutional Court on Thursday ruled certain articles in the law governing parliamentary elections to be invalid, thus annulling the Islamist-led house.
It also ruled as unconstitutional the political isolation law which bars senior members of ousted president Hosni Mubarak's regime and top members of his now-dissolved party from running for public office for 10 years.
The legislation had threatened to disqualify Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, who is to face the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi in a presidential election runoff on Saturday and Sunday.
Egyptian parties and activists accused the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of staging a "counter-revolution" after a series of measures that consolidated its power ahead of the polls.
The court rulings came a day after a decision by the justice ministry to grant army personnel the right to arrest civilians after that power was lifted when the decades-old state of emergency expired on May 31.
"This series of measures shows that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the head of the counter-revolution, is adamant to bring back the old regime and the presidential elections are merely a show," six parties and movements said in a joint statement.
Since February 2011, when Mubarak was ousted and the military took power, a series of steps had been taken to "abort the revolution" including the acquittal of Mubarak's two sons in corruption cases and the freeing of six police commanders accused of killing protesters during the uprising.
The groups including the Current Party, the National Front for the Justice and Democracy, and the Coalition of Revolution Youth have called on Mursi to withdraw from the presidential runoff "which is just a show that legitimises the presence of SCAF at the head of authority in Egypt."
On the international front, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for a full transfer of power to elected civilians. "There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people," she told reporters in Washington.
Parliament speaker Saad al-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose political arm won 47 percent of seats in the house, said there were "question marks over the timing of the ruling."
A military source said the court's ruling technically meant that the military would assume legislative powers. "We don't want it (the power) but according to the court decision and that law, it reverts back to us," the source said.
The head of the constitutional court, Faruq Sultan, told AFP that the decision "voids" parliament and must be respected by the authorities.
Egypt's military decided on a complex electoral system in which voters cast ballots for party lists which made up two thirds of parliament and also for individual candidates for the remaining seats in the lower house.
The individual candidates were meant to be "independents," but members of political parties were subsequently allowed to run, giving the powerful Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) an advantage.
Mohammed al-Beltagi, a senior member of the FJP which dominates parliament, called the court's decision on parliament part of a "military coup."
A series of measures, including giving the military powers of arrest, and then the court ruling were "a complete coup through which the military council erases the most honourable period in this nation's history," he said in a statement.
"This is in many ways a soft military coup. Now we have the parliamentary power going back to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, they will have their presidential candidate, they have the arrest laws. So we are going back to square one," said Ibrahim al-Houdaiby, an expert on Egyptian politics.
Shafiq was initially barred from standing in the election in accordance with the law passed by parliament in April.
But later that month the electoral commission accepted an appeal from Shafiq against his disqualification and the case was referred to the court.
The race has polarised the nation between those who fear a return to the old regime under Shafiq's leadership, and those wanting to keep religion out of politics and who accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of monopolising power since last year's revolt.
The next president, whose powers are yet to be defined by a new constitution, will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the uprising and its sometimes deadly aftermath.