Egypt on Friday readied for a divisive second round presidential vote pitting a former prime minister under the old regime against an Islamist, a day after a top court ordered parliament dissolved.
Some 50 million Egyptians are eligible to cast ballots in the two-day election beginning on Saturday, which sees former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq vying for the top job against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi.
But the voting comes against the backdrop of two controversial court rulings on Thursday, allowing Shafiq's candidacy to proceed despite his role in the old regime, and invalidating Egypt's elected parliament.
Activists called the rulings the final phase of a military coup taking the transition back to square one.
Amid the political uncertainty, the Fitch ratings agency downgraded both of Egypt's currency ratings.
"Back to where you were," read a huge red headline in the independent daily Al-Shorouk after the Supreme Constitutional Court said certain articles in the law governing parliamentary elections were invalid, annulling the Islamist-led house.
It also ruled unconstitutional the political isolation law, which sought to bar 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.
Activists opposed to Shafiq had hoped the court would uphold the law and bar the former prime minister from the presidential race.
He had initially been prevented from standing, but the electoral commission last month accepted his appeal, allowing him to be a candidate and referring the case to the court.
Following the ruling, activists accused the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) 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 the justice ministry decided 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.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, 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.
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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.
But the State Department said separately it was "troubled" by the court ruling ordering parliament annulled and was studying its implications.
"We are continuing to monitor the situation in Egypt," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
"If in fact the conclusion is that there need to be new parliamentary elections our hope is that they can happen swiftly and that they reflect the will of the Egyptian people."
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 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 uncertainty promoted ratings agency Fitch to downgrade Egypt's long-term foreign currency rating from BB- to B+ with a negative outlook and its long-term local currency rating from BB to B+, also with a negative outlook.
The court's decision means "the political and policy-making process has been complicated, delaying the likely implementation of the comprehensive macroeconomic and structural reforms needed to kick-start recovery and ease financing strains," said Richard Fox, head of Middle East and Africa sovereigns at Fitch.
The presidential race has polarised the nation, dividing those who fear a return to the old regime under Shafiq's leadership from others who want to keep religion out of politics.
Mursi only narrowly bested Shafiq in last month's first round vote, and with no reliable polling available, the two men go into the race with their fortunes unclear.
But whoever wins will face the prospect of uniting a sorely divided electorate in an office whose powers have yet to be defined, while dealing with the key challenges of both a flagging economy and deteriorating security.