CAIRO - Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court ruled Thursday that the Islamist-led Parliament must be immediately dissolved, while also blessing the right of Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister to run for president, escalating a battle for power between the remnants of the toppled order and rising Islamists.
The high court, packed with sympathizers of the ousted president, appeared to be engaged in a frontal legal assault on the Muslim Brotherhood, the once outlawed organization whose members swept to power in Parliament this spring and whose candidate was the front-runner for the presidency.
“Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup,’’ Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, wrote in a Twitter post. “We’d be outraged if we weren’t so exhausted.’’
The ruling threw into doubt the status of the presidential election runoff, originally set for Saturday and Sunday, and means that whoever is eventually elected will take power without the check of a sitting Parliament and could even exercise some influence over the election of a future Parliament. It also raises questions about the governing military council’s commitment to democracy and makes uncertain the future of a constitutional assembly recently formed by Parliament as well.
The decision, which dissolves the first freely elected Parliament in Egypt in decades, supercharges a building conflict between the court, which is increasingly presenting itself as a check on Islamists’ power, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ruling, by the highest judicial authority in Egypt, cannot be appealed. It was not clear how the military council, which has been governing Egypt since Mubarak’s downfall in February 2011, would respond. But in anticipation that the court’s ruling could anger citizens, the military authorities reimposed martial law Wednesday.
In the weeks before the first round of presidential voting, Parliament had passed a law banning Ahmed Shafiq, who was Mubarak’s last prime minister, and other top officials of the Mubarak government from seeking the presidency. The law was previously set aside by a panel of Mubarak-appointed judges and Thursday was ruled unconstitutional by the high court.
At the same time, however, the ruling raised new questions about the presidential runoff itself. Some observers argued Thursday that the ruling may have had the effect of invalidating the candidacy of Shafiq’s opponent, Mohammed Morsi, whose nomination relied on the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence in Parliament.
The question at issue in the high court’s decision was the application of a rule setting aside two-thirds of the seats in Parliament for selection by a system of party lists, also known as proportional representation. The other third was reserved for individual candidates competing in winner-take-all races. Other authorities had decided before the parliamentary election that parties could run their members under their banners as candidates for the individual seats as well as the party list seats. But the court ruled Thursday that the parties should not have been allowed to compete for those seats, making the results invalid.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, as the largest and strongest, stands to lose the most from the ruling. Up to 100 of its 235 seats in the 508-member assembly were elected as individual candidates running under its banner. If it lost all of those seats, the Brotherhood would still control the largest bloc in the chamber, and together with the ultraconservative Salafi parties, Islamists would still command a majority. But the Brotherhood’s leadership would be much less decisive.
A senior Brotherhood official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said leaders of the Freedom and Justice Party were meeting to consider the party’s response. The official said all possible responses included refusing to immediately dissolve Parliament and rejecting the decision as legally baseless. He also said the party was considering withdrawing Morsi from the presidential runoff, to invalidate its legitimacy.
It was also unclear whether the ruling might force the dissolution of a recently formed 100-member panel picked by Parliament to write a new constitution. Many members were chosen because of their positions in Parliament. The panel was selected only days ago after talks between the Brotherhood and smaller liberal parties. With Parliament dissolved, administrative courts might strike down the panel, raising questions about how a new panel could be named.