Cairo - Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed a narrow victory early Monday in Egypt's first free presidential election, hours after the ruling military council further expanded its control over the country by granting itself war powers, raising new questions about what authority the president would actually have.
Morsi's declaration of victory at 4 a.m. local time, six hours after polls closed, set the stage for a protracted conflict between the Brotherhood, Egypt's best organized political party, and the military establishment and allies of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who have ruled the modern Egyptian state since its inception.
Morsi's election rival, Ahmed Shafik, who served as Mubarak's last prime minister, said he didn't accept the result. Morsi claimed that he had won 52 percent of the vote with 97 percent of precincts reporting, based on reports from party representatives who were observing vote counting at polling stations across Egypt. Egypt's official election commission had yet to issue its own count, but the Brotherhood's preliminary tallies proved largely accurate in last month's first-round presidential vote.
By swiftly declaring victory, the Brotherhood appeared to be pushing back against the military's efforts in recent weeks to consolidate its hold over Egypt. What was once celebrated as a revolution that toppled Mubarak and could have inspired the Arab world has increasingly become a counter-revolution by the ruling generals, who have reinstated martial law, dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament and will control who writes Egypt's new constitution.
For the second time in less than a week, the military council issued a decree that greatly enhanced its already near-total power: it amended the temporary constitution to define the powers of the president and gave itself the final say over major military matters. Under the change, president can't declare war without the military council's approval, and the council itself will decide its commanders. In the absence of a Parliament, the new president will take the oath of office before the Supreme Constitutional Court, which consists of Mubarak appointees.
Even before the military council's announcement, the two-day runoff vote that ended at 10 p.m. Sunday was shrouded in suspicion over the generals' intentions, with many Egyptians convinced that it would ensure a victory for Shafik. The Brotherhood, which held 47 percent of seats in the now-dissolved Parliament, has increasingly clashed with the generals and on Sunday seemed to signal that it would protest if Shafik was declared the winner.
The sense of uncertainty dampened voter turnout. The Brotherhood's tally said that about 24 million votes were cast out of a population of 50 million eligible voters.
The election commission council said that final results would be announced later this week, but the series of moves by the military made it clear that voters had elected a president without knowing what his powers would be.
In the days leading up to the runoff, the military council named itself in charge of the legislative branch after the constitutional court ruled that some parliament members had been elected illegally. With that, the constitutional assembly, which was to consist of Egyptians and parliamentarians tasked to write the new document, was now under control of the generals. The generals announced Sunday that an assembly will write the permanent constitution within three months of being named, and the document will be put before a public referendum within 15 days. The composition of the constitutional assembly remained unclear.
After completing the constitution, the military council said, a parliamentary election would be held within a month. That means the military council will remain in control of the legislature for at least four more months.
The Brotherhood, which initially said it respected the constitutional court's ruling, has issued increasing vitriolic language, accusing the military of staging a coup.
In the middle-class Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, as election workers were counting ballots Sunday evening, the military council's growing powers loomed over the count. The election workers joked about how Egyptians would respond if either one of the two polarizing candidates won. They dumped the piles of ballot in the middle of the table, the sound of ruffling papers filling the room as military officials watched through barbed windows outside.
As Shafik garnered more votes, one said that the military council "has been building a revolutionary youth prison," referring to the protesters whose calls for reform led to the vote. "We are all headed there."
"No we are not," another responded. "Nobody cares about the state. They only want power."
An election judge tried to keep them focused: "Count carefully. The difference could be one vote."
Perhaps the most telling ballots were the ineligible ones. Some wrote in their own names; others did not mark them at all. Another wrote revolutionary favorite Hamdeen Sabahi, who was disqualified in the first round, across both names on the ballot. Still another wrote "O Lord" next to the check for Shafik.
Slowly, the piles of slips of paper in Imbaba grew higher for Shafik. After two hours of counting, the final tally was 1,828 for Shafik and 1,434 for Morsi. Another 120 votes were ineligible. In a second polling station in Alexandria witnessed by McClatchy, Shafik won 1,225 to Morsi's 1,223. Another 176 were disqualified.
By Sunday night, resignation over the process had turned into sloppiness. In some polling stations workers, soldiers and delegates walked freely through the room. Some representatives of the candidates were put to work as the rules became increasingly more lax.
The new president is to be inaugurated July 1.
Special correspondents Amina Ismail in Cairo and Mohannad Sabry in Alexandria, Egypt, contributed to this report.