The power struggle between Egypt’s newly elected Islamist president and the military has escalated, with lawmakers defying a court order and reconvening the dissolved parliament, marking another disturbing political twist over the future of a nation still tangled in the legacy of Hosni Mubarak.

The Islamist-dominated parliament’s brief session Tuesday was a symbolic victory for President Mohamed Morsi, who had ordered it to meet despite a recent court ruling that disbanded the chamber because of electoral violations.

The legitimacy of the parliament remains in question, but its brief return fits into Morsi’s strategy for regaining powers the military stripped from the presidency last month.

The larger battle is framed by decades-long mistrust between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular military.

The Brotherhood controls nearly 50% of the parliament, and with Morsi, who ran as the group’s candidate in the presidential election, Islamists see a landmark moment to advance their religious agenda.


The generals, many of whom were appointed by longtime autocratic leader Mubarak, have been maneuvering to stanch such ambitions in a political standoff that could play out for years.

The risks are steep for both sides. The nation’s economy is faltering and many Egyptians are frustrated by the seemingly endless turmoil spawned by a revolution that brought down Mubarak 17 months ago but has yet to outline the ideals to restore the nation’s confidence and regional stature.

Parliament Speaker Saad Katatni was careful not to further incite the army or the Supreme Constitutional Court at the minutes-long legislative session. He offered a compromise based on the court ruling that 30% of the seats, which were designated for independent candidates, were improperly filled. The parliament, Katatni said, may consider nullifying those results and holding new elections for the seats.

“The parliament knows its rights and will not interfere with the law,” he said. “We are meeting today in accordance with the court’s decision in order to seek ways to implement the ruling.”

It is uncertain whether the military, which recently granted itself all legislative and many executive powers, will accept Katatni’s logic. The speaker also said the 508-seat parliament would not meet again until after it received a decision on its appeal of the court’s ruling. However, the high court said in a terse statement Monday that its judgments could not be overturned.

The matter was further complicated late Tuesday when the high court suspended Morsi’s decree to recall the parliament, in effect deeming the order illegal. Morsi’s office called the suspension order “invalid and null.” A separate administrative court is also expected to rule on the case next week, leaving politicians and legal experts exasperated by what is unfolding in an increasingly messy transition to democracy.

The generals had warned Morsi and the parliament not to defy the court order. But the army also appeared to want to avoid confrontation. Unlike previously, soldiers did not block lawmakers from entering the parliament building. The scenario appeared to fit the perplexing pattern of the nation’s politics: Despite clear-cut decrees and court decisions, everything is negotiable.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is expected to visit Cairo this weekend, called for further talks between Morsi and the military. Washington, which gives Cairo $1.3 billion in annual military aid, is trying to navigate Egypt’s volatile political divide as part of a broader policy to seek deeper influence with governments emerging from the “Arab Spring” movement.

“We strongly urge dialogue and a concerted effort on the part of all to try to deal with the problems that are understandable, but have to be resolved in order to avoid the kind of difficulties that could derail the transition that is going on,” Clinton said Tuesday during a stop in Vietnam.

Just before Morsi was declared the winner of a runoff election more than two weeks ago, the army curtailed presidential powers over the military, intelligence services and the national budget. The Brotherhood said the army was also responsible for manipulating the court to disband the parliament. This forced Morsi into provocative tactics, Brotherhood leaders said, such as recalling lawmakers and supporting rallies, such as the one Tuesday evening in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that drew thousands of demonstrators.

The Islamists and generals are each seeking to advance their interests by influencing the 100-member committee charged with drafting a new constitution. That document, according to legal experts, will determine how deeply Islam will affect public policy, especially in terms of civil liberties for women and Christians and other non-Muslims.

If Morsi fails on the constitution and is outflanked by the courts and the military, his stature, and that of the Brotherhood, may be severely reduced.

“The president is trying to restore his powers. We are now in a constitutional, legal and political predicament,” said Mustafa Labbad, director of Al Sharq Center for Regional and Strategic Studies.

“Deep inside we have a political problem, which is power sharing between the elected president and the military.”

He said the army did not prevent the parliament’s session “because it doesn’t want to enter into physical confrontation; this is why the Muslim Brotherhood scored points.”

The nation’s fractious politics were evident at the brief meeting. Many liberal and leftist lawmakers boycotted, criticizing Morsi for violating the court’s edict. These lawmakers have felt increasingly squeezed by the heavy-handed actions of the military and by perceptions that the Brotherhood, which had initially promised not to field a presidential candidate, has ignored the ideals of the rebellion that overthrew Mubarak as it seeks to advance its Islamic ideology.

Tuesday’s parliament session “was a form of political bullying” by Morsi “that doesn’t even occur in dictatorships,” Ehab Ramzi, a lawmaker with the Freedom Party, was quoted as saying on the news website Ahram Online.

He accused the president of “infringing upon judicial authority.”


Abdellatif is a special correspondent.