Last day of voting as Egypt heads towards presidential showdown

Election comes against a backdrop of legal and political chaos

Egyptians were voting Sunday in the second and last day of a highly divisive run-off presidential election between an Islamist once jailed by Hosni Mubarak and the ousted leader's last prime minister.

Former air force chief Ahmed Shafiq, who served as ex-president Mubarak's prime minister in the last days of the uprising that toppled him, is vying for the top job against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi.

Polling stations opened at 0600 GMT with small queues forming outside some, an AFP photographer said.

"Zero hour approaches," read the headline of the state-owned daily Al-Gomhouria, as the polarising race prepared to wrap up.

The election comes against a backdrop of legal and political chaos, with the Muslim Brotherhood set on a confrontation path with the ruling military after it ordered the Islamist-led parliament dissolved.

The move throws Egypt's already tumultuous transition after Mubarak's ouster last year into further disarray with the new president expected to take office without a parliament and without a constitution.

"The new president will head to the presidential palace amid a terrifying legal and constitutional vacuum," wrote political analyst Hassan Nafea in the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

The race has polarised the nation, dividing those who fear a return to the old regime under Shafiq from others who want to keep religion out of politics and fear the Brotherhood would stifle personal freedoms.

The new president will inherit a struggling economy, deteriorating security and the challenge of uniting a nation divided by the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak in February 2011.

The election comes against the backdrop of a series of steps that have consolidated the power of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), infuriating activists and boosting the boycott movement.

On Thursday, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled certain articles in the law governing parliamentary elections to be invalid, thus annulling the Islamist-led house.

It also invalidated a law that had threatened to bar Shafiq from the presidential race.

That, in addition to a recent justice ministry decision granting the army the right to arrest civilians, is proof of the military's plans to cement itself in power, analysts believe.

"A Shafiq victory will not only guarantee the SCAF has one of its men in the highest position of executive power, it will also give it an influential role in building the other political institutions of the new regime," Nafea said.

Activists accuse the SCAF, which took power when Mubarak was ousted, of staging a "counter-revolution."

"This series of measures shows that the SCAF, which heads the counter-revolution, is determined to bring back the old regime and that the presidential elections are merely a show," six parties and movements said in a statement.

The military says it does not want to stay in charge and promises to hand power to the newly elected president by the end of the month.

On Saturday the military notified parliament it has been dissolved and banned its members from entering the house, a move swiftly rejected by the Islamists.

Parliament received a notice saying that Egypt's ruling generals had decided "to consider parliament dissolved," the official MENA news agency reported.

"Constant threats to dissolve parliament, elected with the will of 30 million Egyptians, confirm the military council's desire to monopolise power," the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said in a statement.

"Dissolving the elected parliament must go to a fair referendum," it added.