By Tamim Elyan and Alastair Macdonald
(Reuters) - Egyptians were waiting for a president on Saturday, the first they have had a chance to choose for themselves, and one who will either be yet another military man or an Islamist from the army's old adversary the Muslim Brotherhood.
Impatient Brotherhood supporters have been out on Cairo's Tahrir Square day and night since a call in midweek from their leaders to demand the current military rulers cancel measures that they say are designed to hem in the powers of the man they believe was elected last weekend, Islamist Mohamed Morsy.
Hundreds were there on Saturday morning, chanting "Victory for Morsy!" and "Morsy, Morsy, Allahu akbar!" (God is greatest)
The party atmosphere anticipated what would be, if it comes, one of the most dramatic turns of events in the Middle East in decades - an Islamist president of the biggest Arab nation.
A delay in announcing the result, said by officials to be due to dealing with appeals over local voting irregularities, has prompted Brotherhood concern that the military-led "deep state", left over when Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year, was trying to steal their victory, as it did routinely in the past.
"We want the military council to announce the real results without forgery," said Hassan Eissa, 43, an accountant from north of Cairo who was demonstrating on the square. He accused the army of reneging on promises to hand over when it dissolved the Islamist-led parliament on the eve of the presidential run-off and then took for itself legislative powers by decree.
"They have no right," Eissa said. "Egyptians shouldn't be under any kind of guardianship after the revolution."
Some officials say a result could come as early as Saturday, although electoral commission head Farouk Sultan told Reuters officials were still examining appeals and he could not say when the result would be announced.
A Morsy win will create a dramatic new configuration for Egyptian politics, with supporters of religious rule delighted and others, including many who fought on Tahrir Square to end dictatorship, anxious at what it may mean for minorities, women, secular values and for Egypt's dealings with the Western powers.
Violence by hardline Islamists in Tunisia, whose revolt inspired that in Egypt, has troubled many Egyptian liberals.
Senior figures from both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Brotherhood told Reuters they had been in discreet talks this week on political arrangements, though the army has made clear it will not go back on what critics called a "soft coup" aimed at delaying a handover to full civilian rule.
It will neither cancel the dissolution of the Islamist-led parliament nor a decree by which it reserved legislative powers for the council, curbing the president's power. Presented with a take-it-or-leave-it choice, the Brotherhood may find a compromise to pull their protesters off the streets. Years of conflict have made it a wary organization, and it has cooperated with the military council over the 16 months since Mubarak fell.
Electoral and military officials have told Reuters during the week and as late as Friday that the Brotherhood candidate has had a narrow but clear lead over former general Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak's last prime minister. But nothing is certain.
One newspaper, Shorouk, headlined: "Morsy to be announced president today ... Unless."
Morsy, like Shafik, has promised to build a government that bring in people from across the political spectrum. Many of those who launched the Arab Spring uprising were dismayed when more centrist candidates, neither from the army nor the Brotherhood, were eliminated in the first round vote last month.
While some grudgingly backed Shafik to block religious rule, others half-heartedly supported Morsy to prevent what they saw as a return to the old regime. Among those protesting on Tahrir Square on Saturday, Cairo lawyer Atef Rehan said: "I'm not from the Brotherhood and I voted for Morsy only reluctantly.
"But I am here to support their demands."
A 60-year-old, U.S.-educated engineer, the bearded and bespectacled Morsy, is not a familiar figure to Egyptians, some of whom ridicule him as the movement's "spare tire" after his campaign was launched following the exclusion from the race on a technicality of a much better known leader, Khairat al-Shater.
Both sides recall the bloodshed that ravaged another North African state, Algeria, when military rulers thwarted an Islamist movement's triumph at the ballot box in the 1990s, and appear willing to renew the tentative cooperation they built up after Mubarak's overthrow and step back from an outright clash.
An Islamist insurrection in Egypt in the 1990s also cost hundreds of lives, making the Brotherhood wary of violence.
Delay in the final tally of votes was due to many appeals being heard by the electoral commission, officials said. But it also gave more time for talks to defuse tensions.
"There has definitely been the process involved in tallying the official vote before announcing results," a senior state official familiar with the counting process told Reuters on Friday. "But there is also the politicking behind the scenes, with each side weighing up the strength of the other.
"The Brotherhood can draw millions of disciplined supporters onto the streets and the army has a mandate to ensure order."
Discussions between generals and Islamists, whose violent confrontation has marked Egypt for decades, were assuming a likelihood that Morsy will win narrowly.
"We have met with them to discuss how to get out of this crisis after parliament was dissolved and the new president's powers curbed," Shater, who runs the Brotherhood's finances and strategic planning, told Reuters - although he added they were some way from reaching any kind of agreement.
"The generals feel they are the proprietors of power and have not yet reached a level of real compromise," he said.
Major General Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of SCAF, confirmed the recent meetings and repeated the army's commitment to a democratic transition. But he echoed a strong statement issued by SCAF on Friday that rejected the Brotherhood's demands.
"The constitutional decree is the exclusive authority of the military council," Shaheen told Reuters.
In a brusque statement read on state television as Egyptians were completing their Friday prayers, the generals said: "The issuance of the supplementary constitutional decree was necessitated by the needs of administering the affairs of the state during this critical period in the history of our nation."
Morsy shot back that the generals were defying the will of the people and said protests would go on. But he praised the army as "patriotic" and urged a rapid election result.
In what were menacing tones for the army's old adversary the Muslim Brotherhood, SCAF criticized its premature announcement of the election result as sowing division and said people were free to protest - but only if they did not disrupt daily life.
In a country where virtually no one can remember an election before last year that was not rigged, trust is low, not least among Brotherhood officials, many of whom, like Morsy, were jailed under Mubarak for their political activities.
The same electoral commission that handed 90 percent of a November 2010 parliamentary vote to Mubarak's supporters - a result that fuelled the protests that brought him down a few weeks later - sits in judgment on the new presidency.
(Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Alison Williams)