CAIRO // An Egyptian court overturned President Mohammed Morsi's decree calling for parliamentary elections to start in late April, a move that is likely to exacerbate tensions in Egypt and prolong political instability.
Egypt's presidency plans to appeal the administrative court's decision, saying that the election decrees are sovereign acts carried out by the presidency and should not be overturned.
The court ruled on Wednesday that the parliamentary election law should have been vetted by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) for compliance with the constitution before it was ratified.
In January, the SCC found problems with the an earlier version of the law and sent it back to the upper house of parliament, or Shura Council, for revisions. But instead of checking again with the SCC, the Shura Council passed the law and Mr Morsi ordered elections beginning on April 22 and continuing until June.
"There are different scenarios now, but all of them mean a delay of parliamentary elections and that will only throw the country into a bigger mess," said Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University.
One possibility is that the Supreme Administrative Court will rule against the decision by the lower court, allowing elections to proceed as planned. But Mr Hassan said the more likely outcome will be that the law is returned to the SCC for review, which will cause a significant delay to elections.
Mr Morsi's intention to appeal, announced by his adviser Mohamed Gadallah on Wednesday, again puts the president and the judiciary on a collision course. The developments may also delay the delivery of much-needed economic assistance from the International Monetary Fund, which would place further pressure on Mr Morsi's government as it struggles to control a spiralling deficit.
"The presidency respects the administrative court's decision and will stop the call for parliamentary elections. We are in a democratic system that respects the rule of law," Mr Gadallah said. "Having said that, there will be an appeal of the court's decision filed by the State Judiciary Authority which represents the presidency and the government." The judiciary has been at odds with the president since November, when Mr Morsi issued a now-repealed decree protecting his decisions from judicial oversight and, unilaterally, replacing the public prosecutor. He did so to protect the country from an unidentified "conspiracy" by members of the former regime of Hosni Mubarak to prevent Egypt from achieving its goals, he said during a speech in December.
The decree provoked demonstrations across the country and left the country deeply polarised. Mr Morsi retracted the decree, but pushed forward with a referendum on the constitution despite opposition from liberals, secularists and Coptic Christian groups who said the new charter restricted freedoms and paved the way for greater control of the state by Islamists. The constitution was passed in December with 63.8 per cent of the vote.
But the political divisiveness remained, spurred by clashes between protesters and police in cities across Egypt and the country's deteriorating economic situation.
The National Salvation Front, the umbrella opposition group that coalesced after the November decree, said last week that its members would boycott parliamentary elections unless the president replaced his government and took steps to make the political environment more inclusive.
Wednesday's court decision would likely bolster their cause, Mr Hassan said.
"They will now have a stronger rationale for their campaign," he said. "They were already opposed to the election law. Now, the court has ruled in their favour."
Egypt is seeking a US$4.8 billion loan from the IMF to plug its budget deficit, but it has been repeatedly delayed because of fears from the presidency of further enraging the public with austerity measures. The IMF will not sign off on the deal until Egypt proposes a "home-grown" economic reform plan that includes tax increases and a reduction of costly energy subsidies. Obtaining the seal of approval from the IMF would unlock more than $14 billion of aid and loans from other donors.
Another stumbling block in the negotiations, continuing since 2011, has been a lack of consensus on the loan from across the political spectrum. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party initially opposed the loan, but once Mr Morsi - a former official in the group - took power, they became supporters.
However, the IMF loan is still opposed by some Salafist groups, who believe interest-bearing loans are forbidden by Islam, and liberals who fear austerity measures will hurt the most vulnerable members of society at a time when joblessness and food prices are rising.
* With additional reporting from Associated Press