Counter-revolution: Egyptian court invalidates parliamentary elections, affirms Mubarak PM's place on presidential ballot

Critics are calling it a de facto military coup and … yup, that’s pretty much what it sounds like. If you can spare five minutes, the NYT’s story is superb in explaining how severe the legal consequences are of today’s decision, including casting doubt on the legitimacy of the panel chosen by parliament to write the country’s new constitution. If you can’t spare five minutes, here’s the nutshell version. Two-thirds of the seats in parliament were set aside for parties, the other third was set aside for candidates who won individual races. E.g., in one part of the voting, voters were asked to choose their favorite party; whatever percentage of the vote a party got, that’s what percentage of seats they’d get among the two-thirds set-aside in parliament. (The party gets to fill the seats with candidates of their own choosing.) In the other part of voting, voters had to choose among individual candidates to fill the other third of parliamentary seats. The Muslim Brotherhood and other parties ended up running some of their own candidates in the “individual” elections in order to maximize their representation. Today’s supreme court decision held that that was unconstitutional. Result: The country’s historic parliamentary elections are now null and void, the newly chosen constitutional congress is likely also invalid, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate might end up being disqualified — conveniently leaving the military junta’s preferred candidate, Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, as the only “choice” left on the ballot.

Oh, did I mention that parliament’s attempt to ban Shafik from running because he was a toady for Mubarak was also declared unconstitutional? And that the military coincidentally reimposed martial law over the country just 24 hours ago?

What are the odds?

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 as well…

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.

Although the court did not invalidate Mr. Shafik’s candidacy, some argued Thursday that it may have raised new questions about the candidacy of his opponent, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling may have had the effect of invalidating Mr. Morsi’s nomination, which relied on his party’s presence in Parliament.

Presumably Morsi will now end up being thrown off the ballot too. After all, if the point of this move is to clear the way for restoration of military/authoritarian rule, then it makes no sense to leave him on there and risk him riding a wave of public outrage over the court decision to a presidential landslide. In fact, according to CNN, the ruling military junta reacted to the decision by saying that “it now has full legislative power and will announce a 100-person assembly that will write the country’s new constitution by Friday.” If they’re prepared to make that move, they’re obviously not about to provide the Islamist opposition with a figure to rally around. Or maybe they’ll use the old-school approach of leaving Morsi on the ballot and just rigging the election for Shafik? Either way, impossible to imagine the MB winning the presidency now.

What’s bizarre about this power play is that it comes at a moment when the Brotherhood’s popular support had slipped a bit. Read this Marc Lynch post from late last month on how the MB’s recent political missteps, including/especially their decision to field a presidential candidate despite initially promising not to, has made some Egyptians leery of granting them more power. (That’s one of the reasons why Mubarak’s stooge Shafik made it to the run-off. Some Egyptians, the Copts most notably, prefer the old regime to an Islamist hellhole.) I can only assume that the military/judicial coalition had held off on taking drastic measures to neutralize the Brotherhood in hopes that Shafik’s candidacy would gain momentum and he might win the election semi-legitimately, but now for whatever reason they’ve decided that that’s unlikely and they need to step in with a power grab. In a new post today, Lynch can’t figure out their logic either:

Anyone who sees this as the culmination of a devious, effective SCAF [i.e. military] master plan needs to take a step back and look at what they have “won,” however. The SCAF could have been approaching the end of a process that created reasonably legitimate, elected political institutions and restored confidence and security to the country without fundamentally threatening their core interests. Instead, their great success stands to be placing Shafik on an empty, wobbling throne. He will preside over a country in economic collapse, with little prospect of restoring investor confidence any time soon. The legitimacy of the judiciary has been burned, probably decisively. The dissolution of Parliament would remove any possible alternative source of democratic legitimacy. And the process by which Shafik comes to power ensures that he will provide no buffer for the SCAF since he is transparently their creature. This is “victory”?

The SCAF, in other words, may look to have won this seemingly decisive round. But it’s not the endgame. It’s only the beginning of a new phase of a horribly mismanaged “transition” that is coming to its well-earned end. What’s next? A replay of Algeria in 1991? A return to Jan. 25, 2011? Back to 1954? A return to the petulant slow fail of latter-days Mubarak? An alien invasion using nano-weapons and transgalactic wormholes in the Pyramids? Nobody really seems to know…

The Brotherhood won’t take this lying down, obviously, especially since they can use public outcry over thwarted democracy to rebuild their popularity. But what’s their next move? They could force a constitutional crisis by refusing to dissolve parliament, which would put the military in the position of possibly needing to expel them physically. They could, as Lynch notes, try to organize new mass protests of the sort that knocked over Mubarak. Or they could try … other measures. Khairat al-Shater, one of the group’s leaders (and for a time their presidential candidate), told David Ignatius that Egyptians won’t accept Shafik as president and that “It may be difficult to control the streets…. Some parties, not the Muslim Brotherhood, may resort to further violence and extremism…. When people find that the door to peaceful change is closed, it is an invitation to violence.” Exit question: What does the White House do now? Shrug and effectively rubber-stamp the court decision that’s benefited their military allies or pound the table in the name of democracy and risk further empowering the Brotherhood?

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