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Egyptian Parliamentary Deputies Defy Court and Military

Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi attended a military graduation. Sherif Abd Minoem/AP

By | The New York Times | Cairo | 10 Jul 2012

In a raw contest between Egypt’s competing centers of power, legislators on Tuesday defied the country’s highest court and its most senior generals by holding a brief session of the dissolved Parliament, heeding an order by President Mohamed Morsi in the face of opposition from judges and the military.

The session lasted only a few minutes, long enough for lawmakers to approve a proposal by the speaker, Saad el-Katatni of the Muslim Brotherhood, to appeal to the Court of Cassation against an earlier ruling that Mr. Morsi’s effort to revive the Parliament was an affront to the rule of law.

The authorities had made no move to prevent the gathering of Parliament. The assembly is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which also nominated Mr. Morsi as its candidate in the presidential elections that brought him to power.

The power struggle reflected dueling claims to Egypt’s emerging politics, with each side trying to frame the debate as a contest for ideals, legitimacy and democracy. The generals, backed by the court, argue that the new president must respect legal precedents and the institutions of the state. The new president, in turn, is calling on the generals to respect a popular will that was expressed through free elections.

But at its core, the fate of this Parliament is another chapter in the long-running battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military that intensified when the generals dissolved the legislature last month based on a court order and seized all lawmaking and executive authority.

The developments have worried the United States and other powers concerned that the standoff might imperil Egypt’s political future. Speaking during an Asian tour on Tuesday, Reuters reported, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appealed to the parties to talk out their differences.

“We strongly urge dialogue and 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 any kind of difficulties that could derail the transition that is going on,” she said.

The response by the military and the court on Monday threw Egypt into a new phase of political turmoil, with the prospect of a presidency weakened even further, a legislative vacuum and a bitter split at the highest levels of government. And it revived ideological rifts that many people hoped would quiet with the election of a new president.

Mr. Morsi called on Sunday for the Islamist-led Parliament to return, staking his new presidency on the outcome of the conflict. The body’s speaker scheduled a session for Tuesday, but it was unclear how many lawmakers would appear, or whether the security forces would try to block them, as they did once before. And Parliament’s ability to pass laws is already in doubt, given the court ruling that led to its dissolution.

Mr. Morsi, hemmed in by the generals’ near monopoly on power, moved after just nine days in office. His bold decree was a gamble that he could wrest legislative authority from the military and enhance his popular credibility.

Prof. Mona El-Ghobashy, an expert on Egypt’s judiciary who teaches political science at Barnard College, said: “These are two of the most powerful forces in Egypt right now. Each is seeking its own supremacy and the subordination of the other.”

Mr. Morsi’s unexpected countermove was hailed by his supporters as a victory for civilian rule. But with uncharacteristic speed, the Supreme Constitutional Court on Monday sought to reclaim the high ground, claiming an apolitical role and its “sacred task” as the defender of constitutional texts. Its decisions, the court said, “are final and not subject to appeals.”

Mr. Morsi insisted he was not ignoring the court, but merely setting a time frame for carrying out its decision. His office fired back with a robust defense of his order, saying a provision that called for the election of a new Parliament showed his respect for the court’s rulings. Hours later, the military issued a statement justifying its power grab by saying it was imposed by “necessity and the political, judicial and constitutional circumstances the country is going through.”

The brinkmanship and the profusion of legal arguments clouded a subtler duel between the Brotherhood and the military. In many ways the court and the president are proxies for a fight between the nation’s oldest and most influential Islamist organization and appointees of the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak. In Egypt’s postrevolt politics, their ideological struggle has been eclipsed by a more fundamental conflict, between “elected and unelected parts of the state,” Professor Ghobashy said.

During its decades as Mr. Mubarak’s principal opposition, the Brotherhood was officially banned but allowed to operate, with its leaders frequently jailed to further keep the organization in line. Professor Ghobashy said that although the military realized that the “Mubarak model” was no longer an option, “they want to figure out some stable way to allow” the Brotherhood into power.

The two groups, Professor Ghobashy said, were engaged in “a competitive dance.”

“They’re working out what the long-term settlement will be,” she said. “Egyptian politics is a contest for what the new ruling formula will look like.”

In that context, each group has clung stubbornly to its priorities. Mr. Morsi cannot succeed without Parliament, which he needs to broaden his legitimacy by passing popular laws and helping advance his agenda. The military has focused on the Constitution, demanding that it be allowed to challenge provisions it does not like, especially those that potentially curb the military’s power.

While there was little evidence that the two sides were engaged in any direct negotiation, the power struggle that has upended Egyptian politics seems to reflect the groups’ attempts to reach some sort of accommodation, as they have historically.

Early Monday, there was a sense the battle was easing. Mr. Morsi attended a graduation at a military college, where he was shown on television sitting next to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the military council. The men chatted with each other, and Mr. Morsi seemed to enjoy a display of karate by the cadets.

Later, as a few lawmakers wandered to the Parliament building in downtown Cairo, there was little sign of the heavy security presence that had shut the building for weeks. But by the early afternoon, the Supreme Constitutional Court had thrown down its challenge to Mr. Morsi.

“The court asserts, as it has done repeatedly before, that it is not a party to any political conflict that could arise between political forces,” said the judges, who were appointed by Mr. Mubarak. “These rulings in constitutional suits and its decisions of interpretation are binding for all state authorities, and for all.”

Judge Zakaria Abdel Aziz, a former president of the appeals court and a longtime activist for the judiciary’s independence, said he that believed the constitutional court had played an overtly “political role.”

“The judicial authority can’t dissolve the legislative or executive authority,” he said. “And the legislative authority doesn’t have the power to dissolve the judiciary.”

By the end of the day, Mr. Morsi was facing attacks from several quarters, including his former rivals in the presidential race, like Hamdeen Sabahi, a popular Nasserist activist, who accused him of helping the Brotherhood seize control of the legislative branch. A liberal political party, the Free Egyptians, said Mr. Morsi’s decree “laid the bedrock of the Brotherhood state.”

Yasser Ali, a spokesman for Mr. Morsi, responded in an interview with the state newspaper Al Ahram that the president’s move stemmed from the simple conviction that Parliament was freely elected. “Morsi’s decree expressed the will of 30 million Egyptians,” he said.

Mayy El Sheikh and David D. Kirkpatrick contributed reporting.

 

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