Inching towards a showdown?
Mohamed Mursi's decision to reinstate parliament has locked him in a power struggle with judges and generals, writes Gamal Essam El-Din
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What's in it for me?: THE BACK and forth power struggle between Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, the country's ruling generals and the judiciary might make for compelling viewing but to many Egyptians, including this not bemused Cairo street vegetable vendor, such political wheeling and dealing does not make any difference whatsoever
The 8 July presidential decree issued by Mohamed Mursi reconvening the People's Assembly after the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) dissolved it on the grounds that it was elected unconstitutionally is being viewed by most commentators as the Muslim Brotherhood's first major broadside in its battle to Islamicise Egypt. The move places the Brotherhood's successful presidential candidate at loggerheads with both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), led by Minister of Defence Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the judicial authorities led by the SCC.
Mursi's decree, says the head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Diaa Rashwan, represents a coup against the judiciary and could lead to open conflict with SCAF.
"Mursi's order is the first step towards implementing the Brotherhood's ultimate goal of seizing control of all legislative, judicial and executive powers," Rashwan told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The visit of US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns to Cairo this week, argues Rashwan, emboldened Mursi to issue his surprise order after just nine days in office.
"The decree came hours after his meeting with Burns on 8 July. It was intended to send a message to the military and other authorities, warning them that the Americans want him to assume full powers and that they are ready to protect him to achieve this objective."
Rashwan's analysis is shared by many secular politicians.
Mustafa Bakri points out that Mursi's order followed days after US ambassador to Egypt Ann Patterson said on 4 July that "the return of a democratically-elected parliament, following a process decided by Egyptians, will also be an important move forward".
Leftist activist Abul-Ezz El-Hariri says Mursi exploited both Burns's visit to Cairo and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's plans to visit Egypt next Saturday to embarrass the military establishment.
"If SCAF moves to overturn Mursi's decree Tantawi would be accused by the Americans -- be they officials or the media -- of trying to impose a military dictatorship and stage a coup against an elected head of state," says El-Hariri. The US, he argues, is "doing its best" to push Egypt into a state of chaos by encouraging the Brotherhood to turn the country into a religious state. "Eventually it will be the same scenario adopted with Hamas, which ended with the Americans and the Israelis imposing a siege on Gaza."
The Muslim Brotherhood moved quickly in support of Mursi's decree, pushing hundreds of its rank and file to Tahrir Square and to rally around the headquarters of the State Council which is reviewing petitions filed against Mursi's order. Brotherhood supporters attacked Hamdi El-Fakharani, an independent MP who had filed an appeal against Mursi's decree. According to El-Fakharani, the attack "exceeded the intimidation in which the Mubarak regime's security forces use to engage".
Amid a barrage of threats from Muslim Brothers that they would exact revenge on "corrupt judges and media people", Cairo's Administrative Court postponed its judgement of appeals to 17 July.
Conscious, perhaps, of the Pandora's Box Mursi's decree had opened, the People's Assembly, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis, did reconvene on Tuesday, though for 10 minutes only. The session was boycotted by most liberal and leftist forces -- more than a third of MPs -- who missed People's Assembly speaker Saad El-Katatni, like Mursi a former leader of the Brotherhood's FJP, claiming that Mursi had not violated the SCC's ruling by reinstating parliament. El-Katatni then announced he had decided to ask the Court of Cassation to determine which MPs could remain sitting.
El-Katatni's announcement was seen by liberal deputies and legal experts as one more Brotherhood attempt to circumvent the SCC's ruling and cling to its control of the People's Assembly by whatever means possible.
"El-Katatni knows perfectly well that the Court of Cassation can only judge appeals filed against the results of elections. It cannot issue a ruling when the SCC has already determined that the assembly as a whole must be dissolved because the election law under which it was elected was tailored to favour the Brotherhood," says Ihab Ramzi, a liberal Coptic MP.
Brotherhood lawyers have argued that the SCC ruling only invalidates the election results in a third of seats, those reserved for independents but in which the Brotherhood fielded its party affiliated candidates.
Mursi's decree, backed up by threatening Brotherhood tactics, triggered furious reactions from the judiciary. In a strongly-worded statement on Monday the Judges' Club, together with the Syndicate of Lawyers, the State Council and the SCC, demanded that Mursi reverse his position within 36 hours.
Until Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday Mursi had failed to respond to judges' demands. However, the presidential office issued a statement Wednesday afternoon stressing its "respect for the constitution and law, appreciation for the judicial authority and judges and its commitment to judicial verdicts." The statement emphasised the importance of managing the relationship between the state's authorities and the need to prevent collision. The statement furthered that the presidential Decree 11/2012 reinstating the People's Assembly aimed at "respecting the rule of law and the Supreme Constitutional Court."
Most commentators expect judges up the ante by staging a sit-in and declaring non-compliance in implementing any laws issued by Mursi and parliament. Some judges have threatened to begin legal proceedings against Mursi for defying court orders.
Ezzat Agwa, chairman of Alexandria's Judges' Club, told CBC television that, "if Mursi refuses to reverse his position and continues to violate the constitutional oath he should face trial for treason and be expelled from office by force."
"In his speech before his Brotherhood supporters in Tahrir Square on 29 June," points out liberal political activist Mamdouh Hamza, "Mursi stressed that people should not obey him if he violates the principles of law and justice. Well that is what he is doing now. The public should take him at his word."
The SCC responded to Mursi's decree on Tuesday evening by issuing a verdict suspending the presidential order reinstating Egypt's beleaguered People's Assembly. The SCC ruling came after Brotherhood lawyer and MP Nasser El-Hafi accused the court's members of incompetence and demanded they be replaced en masse.
The judiciary has been supported by a number of prominent political activists who view recent events as symptomatic of the Brotherhood's desperate grab for absolute power. Presidential runner-up Hamdeen Sabahi accused Mursi of conniving to help the Brotherhood maintain control of the legislature regardless of its legality. The Free Egyptians Party has charged that Mursi's order "lays the foundation of the Brotherhood state."
Rashwan believes the Brotherhood has exposed "its ugly face" and is now intent on terrorising judges and the Egyptian people to submit to its vision of an Islamist state".
SCAF responded to Mursi's move by issuing a carefully-worded statement on Monday. Without naming the presidency, it urged all state authorities to respect the constitutional addendum issued on 17 June.
Rashwan believes the polite tone adopted by SCAF shows that it is under heavy pressure from the US not to openly challenge Mursi.
"SCAF leaders are afraid that America might cut its annual military aid [estimated at $1.3 billion] and that Hillary Clinton could ask Congress to do so."
On Tuesday Clinton weighed-in with an admonition to Mursi and SCAF to settle their differences "before they derail the transition".
"SCAF will avoid any display of force," says Rashwan, "for fear the Americans will accuse the generals of following the Syrian scenario."
"The generals are hoping that legal action against Mursi, backed by judicial and civilian forces that fear a religious state, will harm Mursi, perhaps to the extent that he can be prised from office."
SCAF's statement might also, posits Rashwan, be intended to send a tacit warning to Mursi that "there is a red line he should not cross and he must respect the 17 June declaration reserving legislative authority to SCAF".
The military council's statement insisted "legal precedents and the institutions of the state must be respected".
Rashwan believes that there will be "more competitive dueling between SCAF and the judiciary on the one hand, and the Brotherhood on the other, as each party tries to impose its authority and seek the subordination of the other".
"SCAF will do its best to ensure that the constitution is drafted in a way that does not curb its powers and privileges and that the Brotherhood will not be given an opportunity to penetrate the army. The judiciary will seek to make sure the Brotherhood does not interfere with its action or impose its hegemony on their ranks. Mursi and the Brotherhood, on the other hand, will be seeking ways to broaden their influence and advance their Islamist agenda."
"SCAF," warns Rashwan, "must never forget that the Brotherhood's long term strategy is not to advance the lives of Egyptians but to secure all the levers of power and then use them to implement its version of an Islamist state. The Brotherhood believes that time, and now the Americans, are on its side."