– McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO, Egypt – Thousands of supporters of Egyptian presidential contender Ahmed Shafik on Saturday held their largest demonstration to date in support of their candidate and the country’s ruling military council, one day before the election commission is scheduled to release the official results of last weekend’s presidential balloting.

Miles away, supporters of Shafik’s rival, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, gathered in similar numbers in Tahrir Square.

The competing protests captured how divisive the election, which pits the long-banned Brotherhood against Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, has been.

Two Egypts were visible in the dueling rallies. Buses transported the Morsi demonstrators to Tahrir Square; Shafik backers arrived in their own cars. Shafik supporters were given bottles of water, the Morsi backers bought from street vendors.

And in a nation where the average monthly salary is roughly $200, Shafik supporters, many dressed in clothes common in Cairo’s wealthier districts, captured the festive protest on their iPads. Indeed, celebrities and elites who thrive in the status quo peppered the crowd.

Most notably, hundreds of soldiers and members of the central security forces lined the streets around the Shafik protest; they were absent at Tahrir, where their presence would likely have irritated already angry crowds. Their presence at the Shafik rally suggested that the military council had helped organize or at least endorsed the gathering, though attendees insisted it had been spontaneous.

“The people and the army are one hand,” Shafik supporters chanted.

Besides the presidency, at stake for Egypt was the role of the military, which has governed Egypt both from the shadows and directly since the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952. Those who support Morsi reject the military council’s dissolution of Parliament two weeks ago in response to a court ruling and its subsequent amending of the temporary constitution to remove the new president’s authority over the military. Supporters of Shafik, himself a retired air force general, believe the ruling council is the best guarantor of the state, especially in the face of a Brotherhood-led presidency.

Even though the Muslim Brotherhood is considered anti-American and anti-Israeli, it was Shafik supporters who repeatedly chanted against alleged U.S. intervention. They repeated charges that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke ill of the Egyptian army last December when in response to soldiers infamously dragging a woman protester along the streets, Clinton denounced the “systematic degradation” of women as a disgrace to Egypt.