BEIRUT

Middle East

Court ruling tests Egypt democracy

Protesters took to the street in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo.

CAIRO: Egypt’s ruling generals were accused of mounting a “military coup” after a court ordered that the country’s 6-month-old Islamist-led parliament be dissolved and the former air force chief Ahmad Shafiq was cleared to run for the presidency.

Clashes erupted outside Cairo’s Supreme Constitutional Court when the ruling was announced, while Islamist MPs – who stand to lose the most from the bombshell announcement – threatened to stage further street protests.

The legal decision related to a law governing the parliamentary elections held earlier this year. Explaining that the legislation was unconstitutional, the court said that “the makeup of the entire chamber is illegal and, consequently, it does not legally stand.”

An entirely new parliament will now have to be elected, throwing Egypt into a grave political crisis just a day before Saturday’s presidential election runoff between Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi.

Leading Brotherhood MP Mohammad al-Beltagy said on his Facebook page that the rulings amounted to 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 said.

Mursi said later Thursday that while he respected the court decision to allow his rival to run in the presidential election, the ruling was “unsatisfactory.”

“The ruling must be respected,” Mursi told the privately owned Dream TV, but added: “This ruling does not dissolve parliament.”

In the United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she expected Egypt’s military authorities to fully transfer power to a democratically elected civilian government, saying: “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people.”

But in a tweet which summed up the shellshock of many revolutionaries fearing exactly that, popular Egyptian blogger Zeinobia wrote: “I want to cry, I want to scream, this is too much.”

The ruling military council, which took power following the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year, is now expected to assume control of parliament’s powers.

But in the event of a presidential election victory for Shafiq – a man who many activists believe is supported by Egypt’s generals – the military establishment will have seized total control over the country’s levers of power.

In addition, the Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision has also emasculated the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently controls nearly half of the legislature.

The group’s support has been waning in recent months, with some analysts saying the flaccid performances of its representatives in the People’s Assembly have alienated many Egyptians.

In the first round of the presidential election last month, Mursi triumphed with less than a quarter of the overall vote – a nosedive compared to the parliamentary elections, when the Brotherhood polled close to 50 percent.

With the legislature it once commanded on the verge of being dissolved, the Brotherhood stands to lose the political power it has spent nearly a century trying to secure.

Last night, in apparent shock, its leaders cancelled a news conference scheduled to take place in central Cairo. A senior member of the group told Reuters that Egypt would be entering a “dark tunnel” if parliament was dissolved.

Shafiq – who was on the verge of being disqualified from Saturday’s vote – praised the Supreme Constitutional Court for its “historic” ruling.

Shafiq had been targeted by a law passed in April which prohibited former regime officials from running in the parliamentary elections.

But in a second ruling also issued Thursday by the Supreme Constitutional Court, judges decided the law was unconstitutional.

The decision, though widely condemned among anti-government activists, had nevertheless been expected in some quarters.

According to Dr. Mohammad Helmy, a judge who presides in Egypt’s State Council administrative courts, there were no grounds for disqualifying Shafiq. “He must be a criminal to ban him,” he said. “You cannot discriminate because of his job.”But Mohammad Fouad Gadalla, a judge and law professor who this week was selected for a committee drafting Egypt’s new constitution, claimed that there were indeed grounds for disqualifying the former fighter pilot.

“Under international law, in an emergency any country can rule that certain rights are limited,” he said, adding that the decision to permit Shafiq to contest Saturday’s election went “against the revolution.”

Last night a campaign worker for defeated leftist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi told The Daily Star she was “very depressed.”

Referring to the Supreme Constitutional Court, whose judges had all been appointed by Mubarak, Sabahi said that Thursday’s rulings had been a “political decision.”

“The Military Council is playing with the law for its political interest.”

Thursday’s decision related to a law passed before the first round of parliamentary elections last December.

That piece of legislation stated that political parties were allowed to contest a third of seats which had been allocated for independent candidates. But judges upheld a previous ruling from a lower court which declared the law breached principles of equality.

The Muslim Brotherhood won the lion’s share of seats designated for independents, along with others allocated for political parties. But if forced to run again, the group would be unlikely to do nearly as well.

Brotherhood leaders have been stung by criticism of its MPs, while the group has also been battered by military attempts to smother its power and accusations of hypocrisy from opponents who pilloried its broken pledge not to field a presidential candidate.

Last night it was unclear when new parliamentary elections would be held.

There were also doubts about the recently formed Constituent Assembly, a committee charged with drafting Egypt’s new constitution. If parliament is dissolved then analysts have said the Assembly – which agreed upon by MPs – would disappear with it.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 15, 2012, on page 1.

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