Egypt's top court plunged the country into turmoil Thursday when it ruled that the Islamist-dominated parliament must be dissolved and the last prime minister to serve under ousted President Hosni Mubarak can run as a candidate in this weekend's presidential runoff election.
Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the most seats in parliamentary elections, denounced the court decision as a "coup" and took to the streets of Cairo in protest.
In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed alarm at the upheaval and urged Egypt's transitional ruling military council to allow the election to go forward.
Egypt's official Middle East News Agency later reported that the council decided to hold the runoff vote as scheduled Saturday and Sunday when Egyptians will choose between former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi.
Muslim Brotherhood leader and lawmaker Mohammed el-Beltagy accused the court, comprised of judges appointed under Mubarak, of mounting a "full-fledged coup."
"This is the Egypt that Shafiq and the military council want and which I will not accept no matter how dear the price is," he wrote on his Facebook page, according to the Associated Press.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, wrote on Twitter: "Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup. We'd be outraged if we weren't so exhausted."
The Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the dismissal of the parliament because, it said, one-third of its members were elected illegally. It also overturned a law that would have banned Mr. Shafiq and other top leaders of the Mubarak government from running for office.
The court said the law, approved by the parliament just last month, was not based on "objective grounds" and violated "the principle of equality."
Mr. Shafiq's response to the court ruling sounded to some like a victory speech.
"This historic ruling sends the message that the era of score-settling and tailor-made law is over," he told supporters in Cairo, according to the AP.
Mr. Shafiq may have every reason to feel upbeat. The court rulings are likely to result in a low voter turnout, which could hurt Mr. Morsi.
Mr. Shafiq's critics say he is an extension of the Mubarak regime, while those opposed to Mr. Morsi worry about the Brotherhood's Islamist agenda.
The court rulings could boost Mr. Shafiq's prospects. Mr. Morsi, meanwhile, told Egyptian TV that he respects the court's decision.
Protests in Cairo
In Cairo, protesters took to the streets 16 months after an Arab Spring uprising forced Mubarak to step down after three decades of autocratic rule. This month, he was sentenced to life in prison for allowing troops to kill demonstrators and now is severely ill in an Egyptian prison.
The court's twin blows to the Muslim Brotherhood brought into focus the power struggle between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military panel that has been ruling Egypt since Mubarak left office, and the Islamists, who were banned under the Mubarak regime.
The Brotherhood won nearly half of the seats in the parliament in the last election, which started in November and lasted three months.
But the Supreme Constitutional Court undercut its power base by upholding a lower-court ruling that the law governing the parliamentary elections was unconstitutional because it allowed political parties to contest a third of the seats that had been set aside for independents.
In Washington, Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Struggle for Egypt," said the court's ruling looks like a military takeover.
The ruling "suggests that the players have largely been outmaneuvered by the military," Mr. Cook said.
"People are coming to the recognition that this is the way in which the old regime is finally trying to snuff out the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square," he added, referring to the site of the Cairo demonstrations against Mubarak.
For three decades, Egypt's military was a crucial part of the Mubarak regime. When it came to power last year, the military council promoted its role as purely transitional.
Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, council chairman and commander of the armed forces, was a defense minister in the Mubarak regime. He is considered Egypt's de facto interim president.
A March 2011 constitutional declaration gives the council the power to dissolve the parliament. New elections will have to be held once the parliament is dismissed, but Thursday's developments have created much uncertainty.
The Obama administration has sought more information from the Egyptians on the implications of the court's rulings.
At the State Department, Mrs. Clinton said: "There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people.
"In keeping with the commitments that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made to the Egyptian people, we expect to see a full transfer of power to a democratically elected government."
Emergency law reinstated
"People are going to react very negatively to this," Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations said of the court rulings. "We are at the end of the beginning in the revolution. This is clearly going to go on for a long time."
In anticipation of the protests, the Egyptian government Wednesday reinstated an emergency law that expired May 31 and had been in place since Islamists assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981.
"I am sure that this is all in preparation for what [the government is] girding for, some pretty big demonstrations," said Ms. Coleman. "People recognize that these counterrevolutionary forces are not moving over."
Mrs. Clinton expressed concern about the reinstitution of the law, which gives the military the power to arrest civilians, including human rights activists, and detain them for indefinite periods of time. They also can be tried in military courts.
"Even if they are temporary, they appear to expand the power of the military to detain civilians and roll back their civil liberties," she said of the extension of the emergency law.
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