Egypt court scuppers democratic assembly


EGYPTIANS REACTED with shock and anger yesterday when the country’s constitutional court delivered two dramatic decisions that could reverse the slender democratic gains of the popular uprising which toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

The court, which is full of judges from the old regime, ruled that Ahmed Shafiq, Mr Mubarak’s last prime minister, could continue to contest the presidency and ordered the invalidation of the election of at least a third of the country’s first freely elected legislators.

Instead of upholding a law barring former regime members from office, enacted in April by the people’s assembly, the court declared the measure “unconstitutional”.

The court said the legislation was not based on “objective grounds” and constituted “a violation of the principle of equality”, producing discrimination on “illogical grounds”. By restoring political legitimacy to senior figures in Mr Mubarak’s regime, this decision is the most direct challenge to Egypt’s revolutionaries by forces branded by them as “counter-revolutionary.”

Mr Shafiq, appointed to the top job as millions of Egyptians took control of Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square and the streets and squares of other major cities, was in office when security forces killed hundreds of those demanding regime change. He previously served as aviation minister and air force commander and has the backing of the military and the outlawed former ruling National Democratic Party in the run-off election tomorrow and Sunday.

The challenger is Mohamed Mursi of the once persecuted Muslim Brotherhood, which has slender revolutionary credentials and stands accused of collaborating with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military high command that assumed presidential power when Mr Mubarak retired.

While by-elections could be held for disqualified legislators, it is likely the entire 508-member people’s assembly could be dissolved because the election of one-third of its members was deemed “unconstitutional”. Many who ran as independents were actually candidates of political parties rather than individuals representing farmers and workers, for whom the seats have been reserved.

The court said in its ruling that the “make-up of the entire chamber is illegal and consequently, it does not legally stand”. The 164-member upper house, the Shura, or Consultative Council, may not be dissolved.

For many Egyptians, the freely elected parliament – although dominated by Muslim fundamentalists – had been the main gain of the uprising.

Ahmad, an acquaintance from the the heady days of the uprising, choked away tears before stating, “There’s no revolution. The old regime is coming back. We won nothing.” The absence of a post-Mubarak constitution, defining the powers of executive, legislature and judiciary, further complicates the situation.

This week a second 100-member panel was selected to draft a new document but it could be declared illegal due to the dissolution of the people’s assembly. In any case the latest panel has little credibility with secular liberals because of heavy fundamentalist representation. The first panel was dismissed for the same reason. The old constitution giving the president wide powers remains in force and there are indications that the military may assume legislative powers until the chaos over parliament is resolved.

Egypt’s justice ministry prepared for the possibility of rallies against the court ruling by empowering the military police and intelligence agencies to detain civilians suspected of crimes, reviving fears that the 30-year-old emergency law lifted two weeks ago could be reimposed.

Traffic was blocked into the Maadi district of Cairo where the court is located and police contained protest scuffles after its decisions were announced.

Mr Shafiq celebrated the court decision by delivering a televised address to supporters. He proclaimed “security, security, security” as his first priority.