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CAIRO, Jul 15 2012 (IPS) - The first major confrontation between Egypt’s new Islamist president and its quasi-ruling military council – fought over the issue of legislative authority – appears to have been won by the latter.
“The Muslim Brotherhood and its allies may have swept last year’s parliamentary polls, but lawmaking power remains in the hands of the military,” Magdi Sherif, political analyst and head of the Guardians of the Revolution Party established in the wake of last year’s Tahrir Square uprising, told IPS. “And recent developments have drawn Egypt’s judiciary into the conflict.”
On Jul. 8, Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely-elected president and long-time Muslim Brotherhood figure, issued an executive decree calling on members of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, to convene. The decree further called for fresh parliamentary polls to be held 60 days after approval of a new constitution via popular referendum.
The following day, Morsi backed down. Vowing to abide by the court ruling, he stressed the presidency’s “respect for the HCC, its judges and all rulings emanating from Egypt’s judiciary.”
Morsi’s Jul. 8 decree reconvening the People’s Assembly – one of his first major acts as Egypt’s new president – had come as a surprise. Not only did it contravene a constitutional court ruling, but it directly countermanded an order issued by Egypt’s military council.
The battle for legislative primacy began in mid-June, when the HCC ruled that the regulations governing last year’s legislative polls – which were swept by the Brotherhood and its Islamist allies – were unconstitutional. The following day, the military council ordered dissolution of parliament’s lower house, almost half the seats of which had been held by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).
Many legal experts continue to question the move’s legitimacy.
“The HCC ruling failed to provide any legal rationale for dissolving the entire assembly,” Atef al-Banna, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University told IPS. “The court only found one-third of the seats in the assembly – those reserved for independents but which were contested by party-affiliated candidates – to be constitutionally questionable.”
When Morsi abruptly ordered the lower house to reconvene, Brotherhood officials hailed the move as a “reflection of the popular will.” The decision was taken, leading FJP member Mohamed al-Baltagi said at the time, “out of respect for the 30 million-plus Egyptians who cast ballots in last year’s parliamentary polls.”
Legal authorities and constitutional law experts, meanwhile, continue to disagree on the legal and constitutional validity of Morsi’s executive diktat.
“Issuing the decree was entirely within Morsi’s legal rights. The President of the republic has the authority to convene the People’s Assembly whenever he wants,” Sarwat Badawi, constitutional law professor at Cairo University told IPS.
According to Badawi, it was the military council’s initial order to dissolve the assembly that was in breach of the law, “since it wasn’t issued by the relevant authority.” The military council, Badawi asserted, “does not have the legal right to order the dissolution of parliament.”
He added: “The HCC, meanwhile, is only mandated with ruling on whether something is constitutional or unconstitutional. Issuing recommendations on how its verdicts should be implemented – as it did when it called for parliament’s dissolution – is outside the court’s purview.”
Mohamed Hamed al-Gamal, former head of Egypt’s State Council, the country’s highest judicial authority in legal disputes between the state and public, strenuously disagreed.
“Morsi’s decision had no constitutional basis and was outside the authority of the presidency,” al-Gamal told IPS. “What’s more, it directly contravened both the HCC ruling and the constitutional addendum.”
Al-Gamal was referring to a Jun. 17 constitutional ‘addendum’ issued by the military council only days after the initial HCC ruling and only days before last month’s hotly-contested presidential runoff. The controversial addendum significantly expanded the military council’s powers at the expense of the country’s democratically elected parliament and presidency.
Along with transferring legislative authority from the dissolved People’s Assembly to the military council, the addendum also transferred several major executive prerogatives – not least of which is the right to declare war – from the presidency to Egypt’s influential generals.
“According to the addendum, the president will share executive authority with the military council,” prominent political analyst Abdullah al-Sennawi told IPS. He went on to describe the move as “nothing less than a soft coup against Egypt’s post-revolution democratic transition.”
Some analysts believe that Morsi’s backdown from last week’s presidential decree was a strategic retreat; that the presidency – and by extension the Brotherhood – is merely saving its strength for its primary objective: the abrogation of the military council’s constitutional addendum.
“Morsi’s subsequent retreat suggests that the decree was a test balloon aimed at measuring the presidency’s strength vis-à-vis the military council,” said Sherif. “If the decree had gone unchallenged, and parliament was allowed to reconvene, Morsi would have taken additional steps aimed at consolidating his position with the ultimate objective of overturning the constitutional addendum and restricting the military’s political role.”
Morsi supporters, meanwhile, have been arrayed in Cairo’s Tahir Square since mid-June – in varying numbers – to protest the dissolution of the Islamist-led People’s Assembly and the terms of the constitutional addendum. Many of them denounce Egypt’s judiciary, describing it as “politicised” and “packed with Mubarak-era holdovers.”
“The recent constitutional court rulings only confirm that Egypt’s judiciary, like most other state institutions, remains full of Mubarak loyalists with counter-revolutionary agendas,” Mohamed Aweida, leading member of the as-yet-unlicensed Arab Unity Party told IPS from the square.
“The idea that these court rulings are being used to achieve political ends has a lot to support it,” Sherif, too, conceded. “This includes the uncanny timing of its initial verdict dissolving parliament, issued only days before last month’s presidential runoff.
“What’s more, the constitutional court took only 45 days to arrive at a ruling, when decisions on major constitutional issues usually take years,” Sherif added. He went on to note that two similar Mubarak-era HCC rulings – both regarding the constitutionality of parliament – had taken five and two years, respectively, to decide.
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