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Egypt's Transition to Democracy upended by court ruling (+video)

Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court today ruled to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament and affirmed the right of Ahmed Shafiq, a longtime minister under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, to run for president.

The dramatic decision effectively wipes away the transition timetable drawn up after former president Mubarak was forced to step down in February 2011, setting the table for a possible confrontation between the ruling military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The ruling, issued by a court many see as politicized, was perceived by some Egyptians to be a power grab by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) just weeks before it had pledged to hand over power to an elected president.

The decision also deals a major blow to the Brotherhood, which had dominated parliamentary elections that ended in January. Since then, the Brotherhood has been locked in a power struggle with the generals. Some in Egypt called the move a soft coup by the military. It came just a day after Egypt’s Justice Ministry extended new arrest powers to the military police and intelligence, which some rights activist said amounts to martial law.

Democratic limbo

The move leaves Egypt with no parliament or new constitution just days before a new president will be elected, raising the stakes of a race in which Shafiq, a former Air Force commander and Mubarak's last prime minister, faces off against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi. With the parliament dissolved, legislative power will revert back to the SCAF. The future of the assembly chosen by parliament this week to write a new constitution is now in doubt.

“I think it's pretty clear that there might not be a transition at this point,” says Michael Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation. “I think there are going to be elections of a sort, but it’s clear that the institutional infrastructure of the state is going to weigh in to protect its perceived interests.”

The court ruled that the law governing the parliamentary elections was unconstitutional because it allowed party members to contest the one-third of parliament seats that had been reserved for independents. With one third of the assembly elected illegally, the entire parliament was declared null. The court also struck down a law passed by the parliament, aimed at keeping Mubarak-era figures out of politics, that would have disqualified Shafiq from running for president.

A Brotherhood leader known for speaking his mind, Mohamed El Beltagi, said on his Facebook page that the court’s ruling was a “full-fledged coup.” But Dr. Morsi, in a television appearance hours after the court decision, said he would remain in the race, and that Egyptians must respect court rulings. He said the ruling did not amount to a military coup.

One key part of Egypt's transition the court’s ruling throws into question is the new constitution. Parliament elected a 100-member panel to write the document Tuesday, but SCAF could potentially declare it illegitimate and appoint a new body. The Brotherhood had fought hard to dominate the assembly that will define the powers of the new president, likely in anticipation of today’s ruling. Now, that power could be snatched from its hands.

Ironically, the law that paved the way for the dissolution of the parliament was issued after demands by a broad coalition of parties that included the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). At the time, they insisted that reserving a third of parliament for independents would benefit members of Mubarak’s regime who wanted to run for office. They insisted on the amendment despite warnings by SCAF that it would be unconstitutional.

Sloppy law

The law that would have disqualified Shafiq, which was passed by the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, was problematic from the start, says Hanna. The Brotherhood could have crafted a law that had a solid legal basis, but instead chose to pass a sloppy law easily declared unconstitutional.

That approach typifies the missteps of the Brotherhood, and the rest of Egypt’s political forces, since the beginning of the transition. SCAF has exploited those mistakes and divisions for its own benefit, says Hanna.

“They [SCAF] have been blessed by the nature of their opponents, and they've taken advantage of their underlying credibility, and the fatigue of Egyptians, and they've used all the modalities at their disposal” to shape the transition in their favor, he says.

Some disagree that the court’s decision was the result of political pressure. “I don’t think there’s been tampering,” says Hisham Kassem, a newspaper publisher and long-time rights activist. “The ruling makes sense.” He says the FJP overreached by pressing for the unconstitutional amendment allowing it to compete for independent seats, and this is the result. “We're looking at the classical political gluttony of FJP,” he said.

Some Egyptians who supported the revolt against Mubarak bemoaned the ruling today, considering it a consolidation of the military’s power. It is unclear how many Egyptians share that feeling. Many are fatigued from the drawn-out transition, and may oppose new protests against military rule. Others may be happy to see the Brotherhood lose out.

Bassem Kamel, a revolutionary turned member of parliament for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said the court ruling is positive because his party will likely gain more seats when new elections are held, and reduce Islamist control of the parliament. After winning nearly half the parliamentary seats, the Brotherhood has lost popularity for its perceived lack of results in parliament and its failure to stick to its pledges.

Mr. Kamel says he doesn't support concentrating power in the hands of the military. “But if we have to choose between the military and the Islamists, I think the military is better,” he said. “We told the Muslim Brotherhood many times, ‘please be on our side to be together. If we are against you, you will be alone against the SCAF. We will not fight the SCAF for you.’ … But all the times they are trying to be alone and they think they are stronger. So it's their decision, not ours.”