- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2012

The power struggle that has pitted Egypt’s first democratically elected president against his country’s courts and military has drifted into murky legal waters, leaving analysts, officials and ordinary Egyptians scratching their heads over the question: who has the law on their side?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will travel to Cairo on Saturday amid growing concern in Washington that the turmoil could imperil the democratic transition in a nation that has been an important U.S. ally in the Middle East.

The tussle in Cairo centers on a decision last month by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s top military panel, to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that a third of the chamber’s members had been illegally elected.

Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, has sought to reinstate parliament and he briefly managed to reconvene legislators on Tuesday in defiance of the generals. The court later suspended the presidential decree that ordered the reopening of the legislature.

The Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appeals court, will review an appeal against the dissolution of parliament on July 17.

Mr. Morsi, meanwhile, has proposed talks with judicial authorities and political forces to try to defuse the crisis.

Scholars are divided on whether the constitutional court has overstepped its mandate.

“Nobody knows anymore,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East who was in Cairo this week.

“Egypt is getting into a situation where you’ve got the presidency, the SCAF and the Supreme Constitutional Court all using their powers against each other, which is unfortunate and strange,”she added.

Court in power struggle

Opinions on the power struggle are colored by politics.

“Not surprisingly, opinions seem to coincide with political sympathies,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “This isn’t about the law as much as it is ultimately about politics.”

Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, said, “It is a power struggle, and clearly the court is a political actor.”

Although the court has the right to issue a ruling on a matter, it does not have the right to actually execute that judgment, he added.

Officials from the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mr. Morsi belongs, have adopted what sources close to them describe as a wait-and-see approach as the political drama unfolds.

The impartiality of the courts is undermined because they are stocked with judges appointed by the autocratic former president Hosni Mubarak, whose regime was openly hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mubarak’s almost three decades in power were brought to an abrupt end by the Arab Spring uprising in February 2011. He has been sentenced to life in prison on charges of premeditated murder of peaceful protesters during the revolution.

“On one hand the Brotherhood looks like it is not respecting the rule of law, but on the other hand should they be respecting the ruling of a judicial establishment that is out to get them?” said Mr. Hamid.

“An argument can be made that Morsi was within his rights to reinstate parliament because he wasn’t reversing the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision, he was reversing the SCAF’s executive decision to dissolve parliament. That distinction is important,” he added.

Mr. Morsi’s defiance of the military order is seen by some analysts as an act by a man determined to assert his authority.

No pushover president

“There was a growing conventional wisdom that this was going to be a weak, semi-ceremonial president,” said Mr. Hamid. “But now Morsi has shown he is not going to be a pushover president.”

However, in a sign that Mr. Morsi may not put up too stiff a fight to reinstate parliament, the presidential decree issued this week also stated that new parliamentary elections will be held within 60 days of the ratification of a new constitution.

It is Egypt’s future constitution that lies at the heart of the power struggle.

The military handed over executive powers to Mr. Morsi when the new president took the oath of office on June 30. It has retained legislative powers until a constitution is drafted and a new parliament elected.

“One of the important prizes right now is the control of the state, and the other is the writing of the new constitution and who is going to control that and what it says,” said Ms. Dunne.

Eric Trager, an Egypt analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, added, “We need to prepare for the likelihood that Egypt’s transition will continue for a really long time and its key storyline will be the battle between the Brotherhood and the military. This is Round 1 of a boxing match.”

The Obama administration is worried that the turmoil in Cairo may stall or derail the political transition in Egypt. It could also hurt Egypt’s already badly battered economy.

“The challenge for the U.S. is how will it continue to support the principles of democracy and engage with Egypt,” said Mr. Shehata.

Mrs. Clinton will arrive in Cairo at a difficult time.

“I think she had hoped that she would be visiting at a time when Egypt’s transition was perhaps moving onto a firmer footing and that the United States could now start to work with a new Egyptian government,” said Ms. Dunne.

“Unfortunately, this power struggle puts her in a difficult position. She will not want to be seen as taking sides.”

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