Egyptian High Court and Military Square Off with Newly-Elected President Morsi

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Last month, the Egyptian high court and military generals dissolved the country’s parliament. But on Sunday, newly-elected Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi decreed that the legislature — dominated by his fellow Islamists — should reconvene.

In response to his declarations, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces called an emergency meeting on Sunday night, and on Monday the Supreme Constitutional Court declared that the month-old ruling to dissolve parliament still holds. Noel King, a freelance journalist in Egypt, says that the power struggle between the branches has led to uncertainty about where the real power lies.

According to King, speaker of the house Saad El-Katatni diffused the tension slightly by sending the Supreme Court's order to dissolve parliament to an appeals court, but questions still remain. "On one hand this buys everybody a little bit of time here in Egypt," King says, "but on the other hand, it only strengthens the appearance that this is a country that's in a state of complete judicial and legal confusion."

Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation, sees the struggle as a serious challenge to legal authority in Egypt. "This is a problematic road to go down because you're essentially attacking the function of judicial review, the separation of authorities, and questioning the validity of a Supreme Court ruling," Hanna says. While the Court has been accused of being politicized, its decision affirming the Supreme Council's decision to dissolve parliament remains an exercise of the highest judicial authority in the country, and attempts by the legislative or executive branches to challenge court rulings could set problematic precedents. 

"The court has seen itself now as a political player, and so I think that is a problem," Hanna says. The larger problem, however, is that if you go down this path, it really scrambles the relations between the branches of government, and it's a really serious challenge to the rule of law." The lack of an approved constitution further muddies the political waters, as military officials are making amendments and decrees independently. 

The clash between the incoming Islamist government and the still-intact bureaucracy staffed by appointees of Hosni Mubarak is detrimental to the country as a whole, Hanna believes. "That makes for a very messy transition that I think has eschewed the act of governance," he says. "In the midst of all of these plays of power, [I think] one of the key takeaways is that the country hasn't been governed for almost a year and a half now." 

One of the steps that Hanna sees as necessary for the country to move forward is the approval of a new constitution, another point where Morsi's government and the entrenched military are butting heads. "The broader issue of what role the military will play in society is not simply going to be solved on paper," Hanna says. "Part of it will be solved by the constitution — the draft, the text — but this is something that's going to play out in practice over many years."