Voters across Egypt were due to go to the polls today for the first democratic elections in more than half a century, despite a political stand-off which could yet derail the country's emergence from decades of dictatorship.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the country's military ruler, yesterday warned of "extremely grave" consequences if the unrest which has ravaged Cairo was allowed to continue.
Activists camping out in Tahrir Square want the generals who took power after the fall of Hosni Mubarak to step down immediately in favour of an interim civilian council. They say the transition to democracy is taking too long, and accuse the military of repressive tactics reminiscent of the Mubarak regime.
Yesterday was the ninth day of rallying, including nearly a week of nationwide unrest which has led to the deaths of 41 civilians and raised questions about how Egypt's Arab Spring revolution has soured so swiftly.
While thousands packed the square yesterday, Mr Tantawi appeared intent on isolating the protesters, saying the government would "not allow troublemakers to meddle in the elections".
He also rejected an offer from Mohamed el-Baradei, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a presidential candidate, to relinquish his bid for Egypt's top job in order to assume leadership of an interim council – a proposal backed by numerous political coalitions.
Professor Paul Sullivan, an expert on the Egyptian military, said: "As much as the Tahrir protesters would like to see the Military Council leave, until they and others can come up with an alternative that makes sense it is important that there be some backbone to the country."
The three-stage election process to choose a 498-member parliament begins today and continues until 3 January, with final results scheduled to be announced on 13 January. FiftyReuse content