Equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. We level the playing field to give people freedom of choice, association, etc. To do otherwise is basically theft.
Why does being born make you entitled to the hard work of others, and the benefits they get from working hard? It doesn't.
If you see meritocracy and equality as being polar opposites, you need to think about the question you are asking, and perhaps define your terms.
Topkek has nailed it. I would add: Whether you believe that a God created the world, or not, it is clear that it was either designed or ended up as a meritocracy. Darwinism or survival of the fittest is the law of this world. We don't live in a world where there are unlimited resources so every living thing has plenty of food, water, shelter, luxuries, etc. Each and every living thing must earn what they get. Equality for all is socialism, and it simply never works. It leads to either the exhaustion of resources, or the extinguishment of the ability and will to survive. Without meritocracy, we would not have all the wonderful advancements that we have. We would still be living in caves afraid of our own shadows.
Meritocracy is a great way of running a society, as long as it is fair and legitimately rewards those who are very talented and skilled in particular arenas. Pure equality ends up being kind of hollow when everyone is guaranteed the exact same results whatever his talent or skill tree is.
Humans aren't all born equal, but they should be given equal opportunity to excel in whatever path they choose. Meritocracy insures that people who work hard are rewarded justly. While equality of opportunity is an absolute must for a meritocracy, equity of outcome (which is what I fear most of the people voting No are thinking) is very bad, because you are providing rewards to those who did not deserve it.
In other words, everyone should have equal opportunity to work at a goal, but it is meritocracy that ensure that those who earn something actually deserve it.
Meritocracy is more important than equality, because people who do better or work harder should be recognized. People should be rewarded for hard work because they will be more likely to work. If a student knows they will receive a B no matter what they do, they will not study very hard.
Equality and democracy will probably always be the most important aspect of a free society. This is just the way it has to be. When you have specific demographics of people who aren't treated the same and championed as the same as all others, the entire thing begins to crumble.
Meritocracy is generally attributed to those with power or those in government who hold power. It has little to do with the common person who isn't even worried about power. For that reason, I find equality far more important. Equality defines the whole, not just a sliver of the population.