Egypt's President Rolls the Dice for Sharia

An effort to reinstate the Islamist-led parliament puts the military and Muslim Brotherhood on a collision course.

Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree on Sunday calling the recently dissolved parliament back into session, thus defying the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and putting the Islamists and military on a collision course. He also called for new elections to be held 60 days after a new constitution is written. Despite opposition by some members of parliament to the recall, and warnings from the military and the courts, Morsi has chosen to gamble that the protestors in the street will be on his side and that the generals fear violence more than they fear a challenge to their power.

SCAF dissolved parliament last month after the Supreme Court ruled that a third of the parliamentary elections held earlier this year were invalid due to a technicality. The generals then seized all legislative power and emasculated the powers of the presidency while taking control of the process to write a new constitution by issuing a "constitutional declaration" that sidelined the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now Morsi is gambling that his efforts to reconstitute parliament -- the major power center of the Islamists -- won't push the military into a violent confrontation with the Muslim Brothers and their supporters in the streets.

Not only is Morsi defying SCAF, he is also going against the Supreme Court who warned Morsi in a statement on Monday that its ruling invalidating parliament was "final" and binding. This leaves the president out on a very thin limb of legitimacy as even some members of parliament are urging him to back down and obey the law.

With the court's unflinching support, the generals issued their own warning to Morsi saying in a statement that they would continue to support the "legitimacy, constitution and law" -- language that suggests they might take action if the Islamists try to convene parliament.

However, no one appears ready, or anxious, for a confrontation. Late Monday evening, the military allowed members of parliament to enter the government center in advance of Tuesday's meeting. And at a ceremony honoring military school graduates on Monday, President Morsi and SCAF leader Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, were seen chatting amiably together. Their camaraderie appeared to signal that some kind of deal may be in the works.

But the Supreme Court is set to rule on three challenges to Morsi's decree also on Tuesday. An adverse decision may give Morsi a chance to back down -- or an excuse for a military crackdown if Morsi continues to defy the court.

Morsi believes he is not defying the Supreme Court by calling parliament back into session because the judges only invalidated 1/3 of the elections. He insists that his decision is an "assertion of the popular will," aimed at overturning the decision made by SCAF to dissolve parliament. "We affirm that there is no confrontation with the judiciary and the decision respects the verdict of the constitutional court," said presidential aide Yasser Ali.  It seems a thin reed on which to hang such a consequential gamble. This is especially true given the Supreme Court's counter to Morsi's move. The judges said in a statement, that its duty was "to prevent any aggression" against the constitution, and that its findings "are final ... [and] binding on all state authorities."

Many lawmakers agree with the court. "The executive decision to bring back parliament shows a disregard for the judicial authority and takes Egypt into a constitutional coma and a conflict between the institutions," Nobel laureate and political dissident Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter.

There is also still great distrust among many Egyptians of the motives of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some see Morsi's decree as a simple power grab at the expense of the military. "Morsi's decision is going to give us a huge problem," predicted Hesham el-Kashef, a 23-year-old lawyer and rights activist. "He is drowning us in legal problems and it is all for the sake of the Brotherhood." Liberal MP Mohammed Abu Hamed echoed that criticism, saying, "SCAF has to move against this constitutional coup: Egypt is not ruled by the Brotherhood's guidance council."

Other, more secular members of parliament have said they will boycott the session on Tuesday -- at least until the Supreme Court rules on the legitimacy of Morsi's decree. "How can we go and attend in violation of a court ruling?" said Imad Gad, a liberal lawmaker. "There must be respect for the law and for state institutions."

But Morsi has his supporters too. Former rival Abul Fotouh, who finished 3rd in the first round of voting for president in May, tweeted, "Respect for the popular will by restoring the elected parliament and respect for the judiciary by holding parliamentary elections is the way out of this crisis." And the influential April 6 Youth Movement's Democratic Front said in a statement, "This decision means that Egyptians truly elected their president in free and fair elections. That means the military council doesn't represent us and should leave the political scene." The Muslim Brotherhood has called on its supporters to demonstrate in favor of the president's decree on Tuesday and, along with a large number of youthful activists, should make an impressive sight in Tahrir Square while giving the military pause if it had a crackdown in mind.

Morsi's activation of street protests could also be seen as a challenge -- or a dare -- to the military forces, which now must decide what to do next. Their reasoning for seizing legislative and executive power has not changed: they fear the Muslim Brotherhood and its program to take economic and political power from the generals. In a statement, SCAF seemed to issue a thinly veiled warning to Morsi. "Out of respect for the people's will," the army said, it "never resorted to exceptional measures during the transition." The meaning of "exceptional measures" is non-specific, but threatening nonetheless.  The military might use the cover of a decision by the Supreme Court to invalidate Morsi's decree recalling parliament as an excuse to stage some kind of crackdown.

But the military has an alternative that it will probably choose: allow parliament to sit but challenge every single law it passes in the courts. There is also the possibility that since the SCAF-issued constitutional decree gives the military legislative powers until a new constitution is written and new elections held, the generals might ignore any laws passed by parliament and enforce their own decrees. This is the sort of legal hornet's nest that Morsi has gotten himself into and if he continues to defy the courts, it is likely he will lose support.

Some observers believe that a power-sharing deal had already been worked out between the two sides prior to Morsi taking office last month and that the military knew that the president would call parliament back into session. The evidence for this is fairly thin, but there is a certain logic to it as Time Magazine's Abigail Hauslohner  explains:

A closer examination of the decree suggests a deal may be in the works this time too. To start, Morsy's declared reinstatement of parliament isn't absolute - it's only valid until a new constitution is ratified.

After that, Morsy has called for a new parliamentary election. That's something that may be necessary under a new constitution, but it's also a plan that the generals had already laid out when they seized legislative power for themselves. If the generals had known of Morsy's plan ahead of time - a possibility made more likely by the fact that the decree reached the public by way of the state news agency - it may be because the move signifies a win-win situation for both parties. Morsy saves face by keeping his promise to keep parliament functioning, while ultimately conceding an election do-over to SCAF several months down the road.

SCAF wants new elections because the generals believe they can limit the power of the Islamists in the new constitution -- the writing of which they are likely to have considerable influence over. Morsi and his allies in other Islamist parties will have something to say about that, but may accept the risk in order to avoid a bloody confrontation now.

Morsi has so far shown that he is picking his fights with the military carefully. He had an opportunity to pardon activists who had been convicted in military courts. Over the last year and a half, thousands of activists have been convicted in these tribunals and Morsi promised to release the prisoners once in office. Despite urging by many liberals, he has so far refused to do so. This indicates that Morsi is willing to go to the mat with the generals only when doing so will consolidate his power.

We are likely to see these confrontations for years as the two sides wrestle with a way to share power without using violence to advance their agendas. Meanwhile, the Egyptian economy teeters on a precipice, food is scarce, unemployment is soaring, and the people are exhausted by these constant political crises. With parliament in limbo, and the powers of the president curtailed, it doesn't appear that President Morsi will be able to address any of these problems in the near future.

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