Egypt court strikes down martial law decree

CAIRO — A move by Egypt’s ruling generals to revive martial law was blunted Tuesday by a court that struck down a government decree that had allowed soldiers and military intelligence services to arrest civilians during the nation’s political turmoil.

The decision by an administrative court, which followed an outcry from human rights groups, was a rebuke to the ruling generals, who have tightened their hold on the country to prevent newly elected Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from accumulating power. The decree had given the army authority to target activists protesting against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The ruling came amid fresh political moves and news of one curious departure. Morsi met with his advisors to choose a new Cabinet before his expected swearing-in Saturday as Egypt’s first freely elected president. Meanwhile, Ahmed Shafik, whom Morsi defeated in the June 16-17 runoff election, left the country at daybreak amid mounting corruption charges stemming from his time as Egypt’s civil aviation minister.

Airport officials in Cairo said Shafik, a retired air force general and the last prime minister to serve under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, reportedly fled with his three daughters and grandchildren. Suggestions swirled that the irascible former fighter pilot wanted to avoid a possible investigation and trial under a government led by Morsi.

Shafik’s campaign, however, denied on its official Facebook page that he was on the lam: “Ahmed Shafik left today at dawn for Abu Dhabi on a private visit and from there he will head to the holy lands of Saudi Arabia to perform the Omra [pilgrimage] before returning to his homeland Egypt.”

The ruling on the martial law provision was praised by human rights groups as a potential first move to gradually roll back the broad powers the military has seized since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011. Unlike the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is dominated by judges appointed by Mubarak, the administrative court tends to act more independently of the government. Its decision still can be appealed.

The case began June 13, when the Justice Ministry handed the army wider security authority as protests against military rule intensified days before the runoff between Morsi and Shafik. The military-backed interim government had earlier allowed the nation’s 30-year-old emergency law to lapse; the decree was criticized as an attempt to restore it.

“We expected this and we’ve been pushing for it. It is a positive step forward to curb powers of the military council,” Gamal Eid, an Egyptian human rights lawyer and founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said of the court’s decision.

The security decree was part of a series of aggressive actions the military has taken this month, including a constitutional declaration that significantly reduced presidential powers and a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the Islamist-controlled parliament. Both moves were widely regarded as the military’s attempt to counter the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood and its candidate, Morsi.

“The worst two decisions made by the military council over the past week were the military law decree and the constitutional declaration,” Eid said. “We put an end to the decree; it is now up to the new president to stop the constitutional declaration.”

Abdellatif is a special correspondent.