Amid Egypt president-army struggle, it’s unclear who’s in charge


CAIRO — The power struggle between Egypt’s president and military leaders is becoming increasingly murky, leaving many Egyptians confused over who is running the country and whether laws and court rulings even apply amid the persistent political disarray.

The struggle is driven by newly elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi’s attempt to weaken the secular army’s grip on a country it has controlled for six decades. Morsi is determined to herald an era of political Islam, which the generals view as a threat to Egypt’s international stature as well as to their personal and business interests.

The latest twist centers on the Islamist-dominated parliament, which the military-allied Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved last month over electoral inconsistencies. In what appears to be a bold challenge to the generals, Morsi has called on the parliament to reconvene. That is expected to happen Tuesday, but the military, which handed itself legislative powers weeks ago, has warned Morsi to respect the court’s decision.

The scenario suggests a deepening crisis, and it may be. But amid the political jousting, Morsi appeared cordial while sitting with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the nation’s top general, during an armed forces graduation ceremony broadcast live Monday on state TV. Hours later, news media reported that security forces had allowed lawmakers to enter the parliament building.

“The elected institution will return to fulfill its constitutional role and the military will return to its barracks,” said Essam Erian, a lawmaker and vice president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “What’s preferable, the elected parliament to return or for the military to continue to [abuse] authorities that are not in its jurisdiction?”

That may prove too audacious a pronouncement. The Supreme Constitutional Court said Monday that Morsi’s decree overstepped his bounds. The court said its duty was “to prevent any aggression” against the constitution, and that its findings “are final ... [and] binding on all state authorities.”

In a statement hours later, after the Brotherhood called for a massive rally to support Morsi on Tuesday, the military hinted that it may intervene if parliament meets. “Out of respect for the people’s will,” the army said, it “never resorted to exceptional measures during the transition.”

Criticism of Morsi’s gambit was echoed by some activists and liberal lawmakers who plan to boycott parliament’s session. “The decree is overturning a state where the rule of law reigns,” human rights advocate Hafez abu Saeda said. “I advise you, Mr. President, to withdraw it because you swore to respect the law and the constitution.”

The April 6 Youth Movement’s Democratic Front, however, supported Morsi, saying: “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.”

It was not evident how Morsi and the generals, who seized control of the country last year after the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak, might finesse a deal to avoid further political chaos. The reinstatement of parliament would give Morsi, a conservative Islamist, an ally to push ahead his agenda, a prospect the military probably would find untenable.

But Egypt’s problems run beyond the political. Months of unrest have frayed nerves and battered the economy. Financial markets have been erratic, tourism has waned, foreign investments have dwindled, and joblessness has shown no signs of improving in the nation, where about 40% of the population lives on $2 or less a day.

Egyptians are weary from relentless intrigue and broken promises. Political maneuvers appear to be heading one way only to reappear a day or two later coursing in a different direction. It’s little wonder. Morsi was elected president without a constitution and with scant defined powers, arriving at the palace as if an accidental figure cast upon a shifting board game.

But much of the disappointment and anger remains tied to the struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood — Morsi recently resigned from the group’s leadership — and the army over which political voice will emerge in a nation that helped inspire the “Arab Spring.”

“It is frustrating not to know what is going on in your own country. Morsi seems like he is trying to act powerful,” said Mohamed Kassem, 20, a student at Alexandria University. “I am definitely confused because it was really obvious from the start that Morsi was all right with negotiating with the [military], yet now it seems that he is defying them.”

He added: “It is also confusing to not see the military make an official response. There are now two dominant sides fighting this out, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.... We as the people don’t really know which side is the strongest at this point.”

The military had appeared the more powerful when Morsi was inaugurated nearly two weeks ago. The generals had passed a declaration severely limiting the president’s authority, especially regarding the armed forces, intelligence and state security. They also moved to gain oversight in the drafting of a new constitution.

Both the Brotherhood and the military are pressing for a document that advances their interests: Islam for the Brotherhood, wider authority for the army. If there is any room for compromise on political matters, it may be that the sides agree that a new parliament should be elected after a constitution is passed. The question is how stridently and on what issues will Morsi move to defy the generals.

One of those tests came Monday when a military court in Suez sentenced activists to prison sentences of six months to three years. Morsi has vowed to free thousands of Egyptians sentenced to jail by tribunals over the last 16 months. Rights activists said Morsi, who recently appointed a committee to investigate tribunals, missed an opportunity to make good on his promise to revolutionaries even while he was quick to reinstate parliament.

“The president has it in his power to pardon these people. The law is very clear on these jurisdictions,” said Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer who estimated that 2,500 civilians have been sentenced by tribunals. “He [Morsi] can’t interfere while the cases are ongoing, but these people have already been sentenced.”

Abdellatif is a special correspondent.