If you haven’t been following the drama in Egypt as the Islamist President Mohammed Mursi has challenged the military over his recall of the dissolved parliament, you can be forgiven for being a little confused.
Egypt is currently a mess and will probably be a mess for many years. Mursi — a former high ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood — is doing a great job of making a big mess an even bigger mess.
Egypt’s Islamist parliament, elected late last year, was dissolved in June by the Supreme Court as a result of irregularities they found in about 1/3 of the races. The military moved immediately to seize all legislative power, drastically curtail the powers of the president, and issued a “constitutional decree” that gave them control over the writing of a new constitution.
But Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood wasn’t going to take that lying down. The president issued a decree that reconvened parliament and, significantly, also called for new elections to be held 60 days after the new constitution was written.
But Mursi bit off more than he could chew in this confrontation. The military issued veiled threats regarding Mursi’s flaunting the courts — controlled by Mubarak-era holdovers thought to be friendly to the military — while the Supreme Court issued their own ruling that struck down Mursi’s decree.
Yesterday, Mursi appeared to be digging in his heels, questioning whether the court had the jurisdiction to rule on the matter. But today, Mursi appears to be softening his hard line and he says he wants “consultations all political forces, institutions and the supreme council of judicial authorities to find the best way out of this situation in order to overcome this stage together,” Mursi’s statement said.
According to his statement, Mursi said he was “committed to the rulings of Egyptian judges and very keen to manage state powers and prevent any confrontation”.
For many Egyptians, though, the stand-off threatens further uncertainty that has plagued the nation since Mubarak was toppled by mass protests in February 2011, sending the economy into a slump and tipping many deeper into poverty.
The Brotherhood also faces anger from liberals and others, frustrated by what they see as a power grab by Islamists, the biggest political beneficiaries of the uprising against Mubarak. They have accused Mursi of riding roughshod over the judiciary.
Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali, in a comment on the statement, said Mursi wanted to “find a way out of the legislative vacuum caused by the dissolution of parliament”.
He said the “problem was not bringing back this (existing) parliament” but added it did not make sense, from a constitutional point of view, to hand legislative power to the military. Mursi, when he recalled parliament, also said new elections would be held once a constitution was in place.
After parliament was dissolved, the army awarded itself the legislative role, a move that analysts said would have boxed Mursi in and hampered his policy program.
Although liberals criticized the Brotherhood for reconvening parliament, many opposed the army for taking lawmaking powers. They could be placated, in part, with a deal to shift that role to an independent body instead of the existing parliament, declared void by the court over flaws in the way it was elected.
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy, a losing presidential contender, had urged Mursi to respect the constitutional court ruling to help “exit the current crisis” but also called for legislative authority to be passed from the army to a separate body.
Taking legislative powers was one way for the military to keep its hand on the tiller after handing executive office to Mursi, helping it defend its privileges and status.
But diplomats say it could also depend on a judiciary, which has a streak of anti-Islamist sentiment.
Mursi appears to have miscalculated the support he had for the recall of parliament. Even some Islamists from other parties complained that the decree was a naked power grab by the Brotherhood. But both sides appear eager to avoid an open break — at least at this point — and the “consultations” will no doubt give Mursi a graceful way to exit without losing face, while gaining at least some credit for standing up for the legislature.
The next flashpoint between the Islamists and the military could be over pardons that Mursi might grant to activists who were tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison in front of military tribunals over the last year and a half since the fall of Mubarak. Mursi has promised the liberals to do this, but has held his fire so far. The generals will probably take a dim view of a civilian overturning a military court’s decision so it goes without saying that if Mursi issues pardons, the two sides will be nose to nose again.