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Egypt's new president challenges military leaders on parliament

July 8, 2012 |  1:01 pm

CAIRO -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi challenged the nation’s military leaders Sunday by calling for parliament to reconvene, weeks after a high court ruled to dissolve the chamber amid fears that Islamists would dominate the government.

The move is the first provocative step by the newly elected president to confront Egypt’s entrenched generals in what is shaping to be a protracted battle for power between a burgeoning political Islam and a secular old guard loyal to deposed leader Hosni Mubarak. The military held an emergency meeting on the action but did not immediately respond, according to the official state news agency.

It is unclear whether Morsi has the authority to restore the Islamist-controlled parliament while the chamber’s fate remains before the courts. The strategy was part of a presidential decree that also called for a fresh legislature to be elected 60 days after a new constitution is ratified before the end of the year.

The president invites parliament “to convene again and to exercise its prerogatives,” stated the official news agency. Lawmakers were expected to attempt to enter the heavily guarded parliament building on Monday.

A longtime Muslim Brotherhood member, Morsi reportedly had been negotiating a power-sharing deal with the military. The army had dramatically limited the authority of the presidency days before Morsi was declared the winner of a runoff election last month. The military is intensely suspicious of Islamists and for decades backed the police state that persecuted them.

The ordeal presents a crucial test for Morsi and the generals. It may foreshadow whether the army -- as the Turkish military did decades ago -- is willing to intervene in the government to block an Islamist leader from consolidating power. Morsi could either benefit from public anger against the army or end up embarrassed and politically weakened if the generals move against him and the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party.

“The president decided it’s in the country’s best interests to reinstate the freely elected parliament until a constitution is drafted,” said a Brotherhood statement. It added that Morsi, who ended his membership with the Brotherhood after winning the presidency, “decided to side with the public will and rule of law.”

The Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis controlled nearly 70% of the parliament elected in January. The Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the assembly dissolved over problems with the electoral process. The military acted on the ruling, which was widely seen as a tactic by the army to prevent Islamists from controlling two branches of government. The case is now before an administrative court.

“Parliament cannot legally reconvene because the Supreme Court found the electoral law itself to be illegitimate,” said Mohamed Abdelghaffar, a member of the national lawyers’ syndicate. “The president made this decision because he realized that he cannot succeed as president without parliamentarians and lawmakers from the Brotherhood backing him.”

Much of the confusion stems from the military’s amendments to an existing constitution that give it broad domain over the armed forces, national budget and security matters usually under the president’s jurisdiction. Morsi has been pressuring the military to relinquish power and not influence the drafting of a new constitution, a process marred by infighting and attempts by the Brotherhood to dictate the outlines of the document.

Morsi’s move was also likely propelled by his promise to revive the country’s dismal economy. Without a supportive parliament, or much power over the government, the new president’s so-called Renaissance program is in danger of being overwhelmed by financial, social and political crises. His fear is that Islamists will not dominate a new legislature and that his vow to choose a politically diverse Cabinet will further weaken his hand.

“If he formed a government that is too diverse with liberals, secularists and leftists he would not be able to achieve the roadmap that he’s outlined,” Abdelghaffar said.

Morsi’s move came as President Obama invited the new Egyptian leader to visit the U.S. during a United Nations meeting in September, Morsi’s office said. Washington has been wary of the ascendancy of Islamists and the future of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. American officials have been meeting with members of the Brotherhood for months to discuss such issues.

“We have taken careful note and appreciated President Morsi’s public statements about a commitment to international obligations, and we certainly attach great importance to Egypt’s continuing role as a force for peace,” said Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who met with Morsi in Cairo.


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Photo: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi looks on during his meeting with Malaysia's Minister of Higher Education Khaled Nordin at the presidential palace in Cairo on Sunday. Credit: Khaled Elfiqi / European Pressphoto Agency