Egypt’s Military and President Escalate Their Power Struggle

July 10, 2012

CAIRO — Egypt’s highest court and its most senior generals on Monday dismissed President Mohamed Morsi’s order to restore the dissolved Parliament as an affront to the rule of law, escalating a raw contest for supremacy between the competing camps.

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 legislaturelast month based on a court order and seized all lawmaking and executive authority.

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, who was the Brotherhood’s candidate, 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.”

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