Mohamed Mursi, the newly elected Egyptian president who rose through the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, is waging an all-out war against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has severely curtailed his executive prerogatives. Though the generals did transfer the power to the president in an impressive ceremony, they don’t intend to let him rule alone and are mustering their considerable political and economic forces to fight what they see as an Islamic takeover of the country. In a somewhat bizarre twist, both parties are turning to the courts to defend their positions.

Even before the results of the election had been announced, the Muslim Brothers lost their strongholds one by one. First came the dissolution of the parliament, where they and the Salafis held threequarters of the seats; then the SCAF published a constitutional declaration granting the generals not only legislative powers but effective control on the drafting of the constitution, the preparation of the budget and all military matters from preparing and managing the budget to promoting officers to top positions – depriving the president of his traditional role as head of the armed forces and preventing him from declaring war without the express consent of the army.

Mursi retains the right to name the prime minister and the ministers; he can issue presidential decrees; and that’s about it. This is an intolerable situation for the Brotherhood. After 84 years of bitter fighting, during which many of their leaders have been executed and thousands of their militants thrown in jail, they have clawed their way legally to the top, dominating the parliament and the Constituent Assembly and seeing one of their own elected president. They will not easily accept the stripping away of their hard-won gains; while they are currently trying to get the courts on their side, they are ready to use force if necessary.

One of the first acts the president took was to issue a presidential decree convening the parliament – in defiance of the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which had ordered its dissolution because elections had not been carried out in compliance with the law. The parliament, duly convened and in a short – 12-minute – session, decided to ask the Cairo administrative court to review the decision – in spite of the fact the Supreme Constitutional Court is at the top of the legal pyramid in Egypt and its decisions cannot be appealed.

Predictably, the lower court declared itself incompetent and Mursi reluctantly accepted its ruling – for now. The Brothers know that should new parliamentary elections be held, they have no hope of repeating their stunning victory. Egyptians are increasingly disenchanted with a movement that has reneged on one promise after another (they had pledged not to present a candidate for the presidency, for instance) and squandered parliamentary discussions on ways to implement the Shari’a (Islamic law) instead of tackling the country’s more urgent problems.

Yesterday the Cairo administrative court sat to discuss three burning issues: 1. A decision was postponed on a request to dissolve the Constituent Assembly, which is in charge of drafting the constitution, because its members are mainly Islamists and all segments of the population are not represented.

2. The court said it did not not have the jurisdiction to rule on a request to dismiss the constitutional declaration issued by the SCAF curtailing the prerogatives of the president and decided to defer it to the Supreme Constitutional Court.

3. There is still a standing request to dissolve the upper house of the parliament, since it was elected in the same manner as the lower house.

Without waiting for the results, Mursi had tried another ploy to prevent the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly: he affixed his signature to the law that created the assembly – a law voted on by the parliament – and then claimed that only the Supreme Constitutional Court could decide whether or not it was valid. The issue is whether a law passed by a parliament that was declared illegal since its inception and has been dissolved as such can be valid.

Various courts are expected to rule in September on the legality of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

After all, it was officially dissolved by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1954. Neither Anwar Sadat, who freed the thousands of militants in jail at that time, nor Hosni Mubarak, rescinded the dissolution order. Though its existence was not legal, the movement managed to survive and expand. A number of its members were elected to the parliament as “independents” or through the Wafd party. After the fall of Mubarak, the SCAF freed the Brothers who were still in jail and let the movement act openly – but the Brotherhood never registered as a political organization. It is generally supposed that it did not want to declare its aims publicly (which is a requirement for any organization asking to be registered) – which are imposing the Shari’a in Egypt and reviving the Caliphate.

For all intents and purposes, the movement remained illegal. This did not stop it from forming a political party , the Freedom and Justice Party, which was approved by the SCAF even though the election laws the SCAF itself had issued prohibited the creation of a party on a religious basis. Now there are a number of legal proceedings challenging the creation of the party, some demanding that the presidential election be annulled because Mursi’s candidacy was presented by an illegal party. Needless to say, all this is the equivalent political dynamite, and intense pressure is being brought to bear by the Brothers to defuse the situation.

And while these arcane and Byzantine discussions are ongoing, Egypt is rudderless. No one has the authority to deal with the deepening economic crisis.

Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri tendered his resignation when Mursi took office and now heads a caretaker government; the new president is still looking for a suitable prime minister. He has pledged that he will not give the post to a Muslim Brother – a pledge he may or may not keep – but finds few takers; Many, like Mohamed ElBaradei, refuse to be a front for an Islamic government.

With no one at the helm, currency reserves are fast running out. Tourism is down, exports are down, foreign investments are down and the hungry are getting hungrier. Thousands of needy people press daily at the gates of the presidential palace, hoping for a word with the president, and the police are forced to block the access roads. While Brothers and SCAF generals are engaged in a bitter fight, the fate of the country – and some say of the revolution – appears to be in the hands of the courts. Unfortunately, neither party is likely to take a defeat lying down.

The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.

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