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Egypt’s top judges in new move to rein in president

The lawmakers' session was brief — it lasted just five minutes — but it pushed Egypt deeper into a potential power struggle between Mohammed Morsi, the new president, and the powerful military.

Egyptian members of parliament greet each other at a brief session of Parliament, the first since the country's high court ruled the chamber unconstitutional.
Egyptian members of parliament greet each other at a brief session of Parliament, the first since the country's high court ruled the chamber unconstitutional.

CAIRO // Egypt’s top judges moved again yesterday to check the power of the newly elected president.

The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ordered a freeze on the decree issued by Mohammed Morsi to reconvene parliament in defiance of the court’s earlier ruling that some of the elections for MPs were unconstitutional.

The move is the latest escalation in a power struggle between the president, the judicial branch and the military.

Mr Morsi, who was inaugurated on June 30 after narrowly winning the presidential election, decreed on Sunday night that the parliament should be restored until new elections could be held this year. The decision reversed an order by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to dissolve parliament and give itself legislative powers before Mr Morsi took office.

Scaf made its decision based on a ruling from the SCC that a third of elections for parliamentary seats were unconstitutional.

With Mr Morsi’s blessing, parliament held a five-minute meeting yesterday that represented a strong symbolic challenge to the military.

Saad Al Katatny, the speaker of the People’s Assembly, gave a short speech that indicated the strategy of the Islamist-dominated parliament and the president. Parliament respected the SCC decision but disagreed with Scaf’s implementation, he said. It would not convene again until the Court of Cassation made a ruling on Scaf’s order to dissolve it.

Legal advisers for the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr Morsi have said that complete dissolution of parliament was not implicit in the SCC ruling, and that new elections could be held for those seats in which voting was deemed unconstitutional.

Mr Morsi and Mr Al Katatny were long-term members of the Muslim Brotherhood before taking office, which has given rise to speculation that the battle under way is between the Brotherhood and the military.

Analysts said yesterday that the proxy war between the executive branch, the courts and the military could prove a debilitating first confrontation for Egypt’s first freely elected president.

“President Morsi made a grave mistake by issuing the decree,” said Chibli Mallat, a senior fellow at Yale University Law Schol who once ran for the presidency of Lebanon.

“I condemn the decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court, but you cannot openly reject their decision. It puts the president and others above the law. Does he want to be another pharaoh?”

The decree could end up weakening the presidency before he has even had a chance to make good on his election promises, Mr Mallat said.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, who is scheduled to visit Egypt this weekend, yesterday urged the president and the military to settle their differences.

“We strongly urge dialogue and a concerted effort on the part of all to try to deal with the problems that are understandable, but have to be resolved in order to avoid the kind of difficulties that could derail the transition that is going on,” she said during a visit to Vietnam.

Mr Morsi is at the centre of a political maelstrom, with several of the liberal and secular groups that were cautiously in discussions about cooperating with his new government criticising his decision. The Free Egyptians, Egyptian Social Democratic Party and several other minority groups in the parliament refused to attend the meeting at parliament yesterday because they said it was an affront to the rule of law.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace laureate who has acted for the past year as the conscience of the revolutionary movement, warned on Twitter on Monday that the decision was “turning Egypt from a government of law into a government of men”.

Although Mr Morsi’s decree and parliament’s meeting yesterday was an attack on the decisions of Scaf, the conflict has remained a battle fought solely in the legal arena.

Security forces did not prevent members of parliament from entering the parliament yesterday and Mr Morsi was shown on state television for the second day in a row sitting beside Hussein Tantawi, the head of Scaf, at an air force graduation ceremony.

The dispute will play out in a series of court judgments that are expected as a consequence of Mr Morsi’s decree.

If the Court of Cassation – which oversees issues with parliamentary elections – agrees to hear the case, it could side with the argument of the parliament and the presidency that a full re-election for parliament is unnecessary. But even that might not change the fate of the assembly after last night’s freeze order by the SCC, because the SCC is the highest court in the country and its decisions cannot be appealed.

The latest round of brinkmanship has also cast doubts about the writing of a new constitution – a key milestone that has been continuously delayed amid disagreements by political forces and legal challenges. Before its dissolution, the parliament established a 100-member constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s 1971 constitution. But there is a legal case to dissolve that group as well, in response to the SCC’s ruling on parliament.

What is clear is that Egypt’s top contenders for power in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak – the Muslim Brotherhood and the military – are attempting to “legitimise their authority by claiming to uphold the law rather than transform it through revolutionary action”, said Ellis Goldberg, a professor of political science at Washington University in Seattle who has studied Egypt’s political transition.

But the bewildering array of lawsuits and claims of coups and counter-coups has left Egypt at another fragile moment in its transition to democracy.

“This has had the appearance of an elaborate, nearly ritual performance whose rules may be clear to the protagonists, but which are confusing to the rest of us,” Mr Goldberg said on his website on Monday.