Things in Egypt are heating up…or perhaps more appropriately, cooling down. The Egyptian Constitutional court met on Thursday to determine the constitutionality of the presidential exclusionary law, a parliamentary law that bars members of the former Mubarak regime from participating in the presidential elections. If the constitutionality had been upheld on Thursday, Ahmed Shafiq, the former Prime Minister under the Mubarak regime would not have been allowed to remain as a candidate in this weekend’s run-off against the Freedom and Justice party’s (Muslim Brotherhood) candidate Mohammed Mursi. Initially, while disqualifying 10 out of 23 of the original presidential candidates on administrative grounds, the country’s Supreme Presidential Electoral Council (SPEC)—closely controlled by the Supreme Military Council (SCAF)—had chosen to ignore the applicability of the exclusionary law in the case of Ahmed Shafiq, allowing him to run, while at the same time asking the law to be reviewed by the supreme court.
The Supreme Court was meant to review this process, in order to determine whether or not Shafiq could continue to the final round in the elections on June 16-17. While some had predicted that the SCAF was eager to use the law to “kick out” their own preferred candidates in order to re-do the elections—which the Muslim Brotherhood’s freedom and Justice party is expected to win—they (it is assumed that SCAF and the Supreme court are closely aligned) instead allowed Shafiq to stay in the race, but opted for turning their attention directly to the parliament itself, invalidating about a third of the seats in the lower house, effectively invalidating last years parliamentary elections. With parliament dissolved, the SAC will again takes on broad legislative powers, to the detriment of Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is widely expected to win the presidency.
This audacious move, which was described as a “military coup” by a top official of the Muslim Brotherhood plunges the country into a state of political uncertainty just two days ahead of the final presidential vote. It also comes only days ahead of the date when the military council had pledged they would hand over power to civilian rule, further stifling the prospects of a successful democratic transition in Egypt, a process that has been hailed as a triumph by the international community.
Although the presidential elections are expected to be held as planned this weekend, disappointment in the democratic process is widespread, and resentment among the masses is certain to rise. The clear losers of this move are the Islamic parties—both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists—whose representatives had won many of the seats that have now been declared invalid, as they had been meant for independent, unaffiliated candidates. While each political party was only allowed to field one candidate per district, some political parties managed to field more than one by running them as independents, which, according to the court, delegitimizes the democratic process.
The Supreme Court decision may benefit the SCAF in the short run by allowing more time to limit the power of the Islamists in government, but it may also backfire. Because the SCAF and their preferred candidate represent the secular forces of society, the decision may directly play into the hands of the Muslim parties. Although some liberals and leftists, who are apprehensive about the strength of the Muslim Brotherhood, may welcome the decision, they are also weary of the increasing strength of the military in civilian affairs. Renewed protests today showed that while the Tahrir square demonstrators may have lost some hope in the democratic process, they have not yet given up.
Ultimately this ruling is a way for the SCAF to buy time for itself, as it seems increasingly determined to guarantee a future hold over Egyptian politics and society. Electing a president without a parliament means that whoever wins will have to deal directly with the military rulers while a new parliament is elected and a new constitution is drafted. It is still unclear what the dissolving of the parliament would mean for the 100-member constitutional assembly whose composition was finally approved by parliament on Monday. Because the SCAF now assumes full legislative powers, it is widely expected to issue its own interim constitutional charter while it sorts out the details and awaits a new draft from the assembly.
The military has a lot to lose from a full democratic transition. While the economy is in shambles, the military cadre lives comfortable lives. When they retire from, army officers are practically guaranteed prestigious posts as high-ranking officials in either public sector companies or government agencies. While Mubarak began a drive to privatize large public sector industries before his ouster, the military quickly reversed the privatization, and the turnover of retired generals that go into civilian jobs has increased since last year. Thus, it seems the Egyptian transition has taken a turn for the worse; what seemed like an incredible promise is now showing to be a well-choreographed farce.