Egypt’s embattled transition of power was dealt a crippling blow on Thursday when a panel of judges issued a sweeping pair of rulings that dissolved the popularly elected parliament and allowed Hosni Mubarak’s former prime minister to run for president.
The country now finds itself with no parliament, no constitution (nor a clear process for drafting one), and facing a deeply divisive presidential race. The court decisions effectively leave the Supreme Council of Armed Forces with full executive and legislative control of the country and in a position to closely oversee, and thus influence, the constitution-drafting process.
The rulings came a day after the justice ministry announced a decree that gives members of the military police and intelligence services the right to arrest and detain civilians, a refashioning of the thirty-year emergency law Egypt had finally shed just two weeks earlier.
“The heavy-handedness of all this is kind of shocking in its totality,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at New York–based Century Foundation. “SCAF is a bull when it enters the political ring, it doesn’t know how to do anything subtlety.”
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the Supreme Constitutional Court on a Nile-side road in southern Cairo on Thursday morning in anticipation of the news. Military police and central security forces backed by armored personnel carriers and police trucks were stationed behind a barbed-wire barricade in the middle of the street.
The court, comprised entirely of Mubarak-appointed judges, ruled that one-third of the parliament had been elected illegally, through a misapplication of rules for independent candidates, and that the whole body had therefore to be dissolved. The decision brought into sharp focus the struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood which had won the biggest bloc in the People’s Assembly, with nearly 47 percent of the seats.
The court also struck down a law, passed in April, that would have barred senior officials of Mubarak’s regime from running for office for ten years and which would have applied to presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister. The legislation was signed by SCAF, yet the presidential elections commission allowed Shafik to run, referring the bill to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Following the rulings, Shafik held a press conference that resembled a victory rally, hailing the court’s “historic decision.” He now faces Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, in a presidential runoff scheduled to take place this weekend.
“Unfortunately, Egypt’s judiciary is completely politicized,” says Lotfi El-Zobagi, a 47-year-old laborer who had come to protest outside the courthouse. “The SCAF makes the judges rule against the revolution and against the dreams of all us revolutionaries.”
The rulings were widely denounced by liberals, Islamists and human rights activists as amounting to a “coup” by the military. Of course, army generals have maintained a grip on power ever since Mubarak’s ouster, meaning that little has actually changed.
“To talk about a military coup in June 2012 is to assume that Egypt was run by a civilian government since the toppling of Mubarak, which is completely farcical,” writes Hossam El-Hamalawy, a prominent blogger and activist with the Revolutionary Socialists. “The coup, more or less, has been in effect since 11 February 2011, when revolutionaries managed to overthrow Mubarak, and he was replaced by his handpicked army generals.”
Calls are growing for a boycott of this weekend’s presidential runoff, with campaigners arguing that the entire election process as overseen by the military council is illegitimate, especially with Shafik—the very embodiment of the former regime—in the race. Boycott advocates also point to the fallacy of electing a president without a parliament in place or a permanent constitution to define his powers.
Hamdeen Sabbahi, a Nasserite socialist who came in a close third in the first round of the presidential elections, has called on the Muslim Brotherhood to withdraw Morsi from the race, as have other political figures. But on the night of the rulings, Morsi made clear he will stay in, holding a press conference billing himself as the “revolutionary candidate” standing against the former regime. The Brotherhood, however, is widely viewed as having abandoned the revolution in pursuit of its own interests and it remains unclear what support it will receive as a lesser-of-two evils option for the presidency.
Meanwhile, the future of the constitution-drafting process remains in question. Just this week, Parliament selected a 100-member constituent assembly that included dozens of lawmakers, but the body is likely to be dissolved, given reports that the SCAF plans to outline new standards for the constituent assembly.
The ruling army generals have made it clear throughout the transitional period that they are looking to protect the military’s political and economic interests before a so-called handover of power to a civilian president by enshrining its privileges in the constitution and, more alarmingly, by potentially maintaining the existence of the SCAF as a fourth branch of government.
“In a lot of ways, SCAF is in weaker position,” Hanna says. “They may have more power than they’ve ever had since 1954, but the red lines with respect to the military are gone. There is an active opposition to the army’s plans that didn’t exist before.”
The day after the court rulings, thousands of protesters marched to Tahrir Square, though the demonstration lacked the numbers exhibited at critical junctures since the revolution began. As Egyptians prepare to vote in the run-off this weekend, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the military managed-process is really a transition to nothing different at all.