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Egypt court challenges Morsi over top prosecutor

CAIRO — An Egyptian appeals court on Wednesday annulled a presidential decree appointing the top prosecutor in a new challenge by the judiciary to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that throws the country’s legal system into confusion.

The unprecedented verdict against the decree, which Morsi issued in November, brought to the surface how Egypt’s stormy post-revolution transition has profoundly snarled the lines of authority and law, leaving unclear the boundaries between powers of the president and the judiciary and who has the ultimate say in interpreting a deeply disputed constitution.

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It also opens a new phase in the political fight between Morsi and his Islamist backers on one side and his mainly liberal and secular opponents, a fight that the judiciary has repeatedly been dragged into the past year.

Morsi supporters say the judiciary remains in the control of supporters of the regime of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, warning that they are seeking to derail the country’s democratic transition and undermine the president’s authority.

Morsi’s opponents say the elected president has continuously defied legal norms to force through his agenda and trampled on the judiciary’s independence in a bid to consolidate his power. The courts are the sole branch of government not under the dominance of Morsi’s Islamist allies, although he does have some backers.

Most legal experts argued that the decision is effective immediately and that the top prosecutor must be removed. If not, the prosecutor has no powers to issue arrest warrants or refer cases to court, bringing the country’s legal system to a halt, said constitutional law professor Mohammed Hassanein Abdel-Al.

‘‘It is unprecedented in the history of Egypt to question the legitimacy of the top prosecutor,’’ Abdel-Al said. ‘‘The president must correct the course.’’

A presidential spokesman said he would not comment on court ruling. But Morsi’s supporters insisted the verdict violates the constitution and is likely to be shot down on appeal.

‘‘This is an invalid ruling. It violates the constitution,’’ said Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, the legal adviser of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Morsi hails.

The dispute is rooted in a series of controversial decrees Morsi issued in November that sparked widespread protests. In them, he decreed that the prosecutor general could serve in office for only four years, with immediate effect on the post’s holder at the time, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, in place since 2006. Morsi replaced Mahmoud with Talaat Abdullah, a career judge, and swiftly swore him in.

At the same time, Morsi decreed that the judiciary could not reverse his decisions.

The decrees were largely aimed at preventing the courts from blocking the drafting of a new constitution by a body dominated by Morsi’s allies. The Islamist-backed charter was then rushed through a public referendum in December.

Many Egyptians, including revolutionary activists, had wanted Mahmoud’s ouster, since he was seen as a diehard supporter of Mubarak. But Morsi’s decrees and his unilateral naming of a replacement prompted public outrage and criticism, including by many in the judiciary, that he was neutralizing the courts in a power grab. Morsi later lifted the decrees, but their results remained in place.

The question remained unresolved over which has precedence — Morsi’s decrees or rulings by the courts.

Wednesday’s ruling deepens the dispute over this question.

The Cairo appeals court, a unit specializing in complaints by judges and lawyers, ruled in a case filed by the sacked prosecutor, Mahmoud.

A member of the court, Mohsen el-Baz, told Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr that the ruling found that Abdullah’s appointment violated laws requiring that the country’s top judicial body, the Supreme Judicial Council, approve the choice.

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