TEN days after formally assuming Egypt’s presidency, Muhammad Morsi, a Muslim Brother, threw down the gauntlet to the generals who are plainly still determined to have the final say in running the country. On July 10th Mr Morsi declared that the Brother-dominated parliament elected between November and February should be reinstated, in defiance of a court order, backed by the generals, that had dissolved the body a month earlier. But on July 11th Mr Morsi appeared to back down. His office said he would respect the court decision “because we are a law-based state.”
The eventual outcome of this argument will bear greatly on Egypt’s future. Will the country be run by Islamists elected by the people or by more secular-minded generals whose writ depends on coercion and on institutions entrenched during 60 years of military rule—and will the courts re-emerge as a respected institution?
Thousands of Mr Morsi’s angry supporters once again filled Tahrir Square in Cairo, as three separate courts set about studying the issue. The Supreme Court had already ruled Mr Morsi’s move unconstitutional, insisting that its own opinions were “final and binding”. Also in play is the administrative court, which will rule on the validity of Mr Morsi’s executive order on July 17th. And the newly elected members of the parliament, who met on July 11th despite its dissolution by the constitutional court’s order, have appealed to a third legal body, the Court of Cassation.
The roots of the row stretch back to the parliamentary elections, which followed a procedure set by an electoral law providing for two-thirds of the seats to be allocated by party lists and the rest to be fought by individuals running as independents. The Supreme Court deemed that method unconstitutional, arguing that it favoured parties (notably the Muslim Brothers) over independent and unaffiliated candidates.
The timing, however, was particularly suspicious, because the generals’ Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as the SCAF, dissolved Parliament just two days before the presidential election’s run-off, provoking cries of a “soft coup” against democracy. The cries grew louder when the SCAF issued a constitutional decree as polls closed that stripped the incoming president of many of his powers, including oversight of the armed forces. Plainly the generals could not tolerate the prospect of a Brother-dominated parliament ruling in tandem with a Brotherly president.
Egypt has been in a “constitutional twilight zone” since Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president more than a year ago, says Elijah Zarwan of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank in London. By reinstating Parliament, Mr Morsi is trying to wrench back some of the authority stripped from civilian politicians. “This will go down in history as the first serious step towards a democratic transition in Egypt,” says Omar Ashour, an Egyptian academic. “The ultimate test of a democratic transition is whether civilians are in charge of the armed forces.”
But Hamdeen Sabbahi, a left-winger who came third in the presidential election’s first round, attacked the move as “a waste of legal authority”. A liberal opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, tweeted that it risked “turning Egypt from a government of law into a government of men.”
Such opposition may have helped persuade Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood, who want to form a unity government, to defer to the generals and the courts—for the moment. But Egypt’s judiciary has damaged its already tarnished reputation for independence, thanks both to the undue haste of its ruling that dissolved Parliament and to a recent vitriolic tirade against the Islamists by the head of the judges’ club, Ahmed el-Zend. Nevertheless, some independent-minded observers think the Brotherhood should accept that provided the courts are independent, judges are entitled to put checks on the legislature, especially if it is dominated by a single ideology.