Blow to Transition as Court Dissolves Egypt’s Parliament
DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
CAIRO — A panel of judges appointed by Egypt’s ousted president, Hosni Mubarak, threw the nation’s troubled transition to democracy into grave doubt Thursday with rulings that dissolved the popularly elected Parliament and allowed the toppled government’s last prime minister to run for president, escalating a struggle by remnants of the old elite to block Islamists from coming to power.
The rulings by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court were quickly condemned as a “coup” by Islamists, liberals and scholars. The court’s action, coming two days before a presidential runoff, set up a showdown with the Islamists who controlled Parliament. They said Thursday night that they refused to dissolve the legislature and vowed to win the presidency despite the signs of opposition within the government overseeing the vote.
The rulings recalled events that have played out across the region for decades, when secular elites have cracked down on Islamists poised for electoral gains, most famously when the dissolution of Algeria’s Islamist-led Parliament started a civil war 20 years ago.
Citing a misapplication of rules for independent candidates, the court sought to overturn the first democratically elected Parliament in more than six decades and the most significant accomplishment of the Egyptian revolt. Many analysts and activists said Thursday that they feared the decision was a step toward re-establishing a military-backed autocracy, though it was not yet clear whether the military leadership was willing to risk a new outbreak of unrest by suppressing the country’s most powerful political forces.
The streets were mostly quiet on Thursday as organizers digested the rulings. Activists met to plot a response, and some groups announced plans for a major demonstration on Friday night.
The military rulers did not issue a statement on the court’s decision. But the Web site of the state newspaper Al Ahram reported that the generals said the presidential runoff would still take place on schedule.
“From a democratic perspective, this is the worst possible outcome imaginable,” said Shadi Hamid, research director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “This is an all-out power grab by the military.”
The timing of the ruling seems like a transparent attempt to undermine the Islamists just two days before Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is set to compete in the runoff against Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general and Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister.
If the ruling is carried out, whoever wins the presidential race would take power without the check of a sitting Parliament and could exercise significant influence over the elections to form a new one. The new president will also take office without a permanent constitution to define his powers or duties. A 100-member constitutional assembly appointed by Parliament and including dozens of lawmakers may also be dissolved. And in any event, the ruling generals are expected to issue their own interim charter during the drafting.
Electing a president without either a constitution or a parliament is like “electing an ‘emperor’ with more power than the deposed dictator. A travesty,” Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat and former presidential candidate, said in a comment online.
In a statement, the Brotherhood’s political arm said the court’s decisions “confirms that the former regime hasn’t surrendered yet and won’t give up easily.”
Mr. Morsi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, charged that the rulings proved some were “plotting against the people,” determined to “tamper with the will of the people.”
But Brotherhood officials said Thursday that they expected Parliament to meet as scheduled next week. They argued that under the Egyptian system, the high constitutional court does not have the authority to order the dissolution of Parliament and that in any event there were less sweeping remedies available to resolve the court’s complaints.
“The Parliament hasn’t been and won’t be dissolved,” Mr. Morsi said in a television interview. He also vowed to compete as planned against Mr. Shafik.
“There is a chance ahead of us, through free will, to completely prevent the return of anyone from the old criminal regime,” Mr. Morsi said in the interview. “I love the armed forces,” he said, urging the generals “not to allow the hyenas of darkness to come back through the presidential elections.”
Brotherhood officials said that they had considered pulling Mr. Morsi out of the race in protest. But a top election official clarified in a television interview that Mr. Morsi had little choice but to compete: his name is already printed on the ballots, and the official said that if Mr. Morsi pulled out, the authorities would have to hold an up-or-down referendum on Mr. Shafik.
Some lawmakers said they welcomed the dissolution of Parliament even though it cost them their seats. They were afraid of the power of the Islamists, said Emad Gad, a leader of the secular Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary bloc. He has endorsed Mr. Shafik.
“Definitely it is good,” Mr. Gad said, arguing that the ruling was a blow to the Islamists’ power and prestige, bolstering Mr. Shafik’s chances to win the presidential election. He was less afraid that Mr. Shafik might become a Mubarak-like strongman than he was of the Islamists monopolizing power through their victories at the polls. “We can demonstrate against Shafik, but we cannot demonstrate against the Islamists,” Mr. Gad said.
In the weeks before the first round of presidential voting, the Brotherhood-led Parliament passed a law blocking Mr. Shafik and other top officials of the Mubarak government from competing for the presidency. But many liberal jurists said that the narrow targeting of the law appeared questionable. An electoral commission of Mubarak-appointed judges set it aside. And on Thursday, the high court ruled it unconstitutional.
Mr. Shafik made no comments on the dissolution of Parliament. But in a televised campaign speech at a Cairo hotel — it had the feel of a victory rally, with adoring supporters chanting “We love you, Mr. President” — Mr. Shafik called the decision to validate his campaign “historic.”
“The era of settling grudges has ended,” he declared, suggesting obliquely that by passing the law the Brotherhood had sought “the use of the state institutions to serve a certain group.”
“I promise to confront chaos and restore stability,” Mr. Shafik said, repeating his core message. “Egypt needs leadership, and it needs manhood in leadership.”
Some elements of the ruling striking down Parliament should not have come as a surprise.
Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, noted that the constitutional court had sought the dissolution of Parliament at least twice before, in 1987 and 1990, for similar reasons. As it did Thursday, it ruled in each case that election officials had impermissibly allowed political parties to complete for seats designated for independents.
But in those cases, the court took years to investigate each case before ordering the dissolution of the Parliaments long after they were elected (and the Parliaments also rejected the court’s authority). Mr. Brown wrote on Thursday that it was the court’s timing and speed that were the “big surprise.”
“What was beginning to look like a coup in slow motion is no longer moving in slow motion,” he wrote.
Over the longer term, the ruling could also make it harder for Islamists, who have the strongest parties, to re-establish their commanding majority in Parliament when new elections are held.
The military-issued transitional charter had reserved a third of the seats in the 508-member body for competition by individual candidates instead of party lists, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party won about 100 of its 235-seat plurality — nearly half the chamber — by running candidates for individual seats. The ruling could block the party from doing the same thing in the next legislature, and it would have a similar effect on the ultraconservative Salafi parties.
On Thursday, however, the younger and more liberal activists who helped kick off the revolt against Mr. Mubarak were as stunned by the ruling as the more established Islamists.
Some supporters of the revolution said they worried that the public was almost too fatigued to respond. “Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, wrote in a Twitter post. “We’d be outraged if we weren’t so exhausted.”
Mamdouh Sharabtly, 48, a restaurant worker, wondered if anyone could understand the rulings. “Today’s verdict signaled that Shafik will win anyway,” he said. “If their aim is to tire us of so-called democracy, it’s working. The military is running the show.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 14, 2012
A previous version of this article misstated the court’s decision regarding a law passed by Parliament banning Ahmed Shafik from running for president. It was ruled unconstitutional, not constitutional.