Two controversial rulings by Egypt’s High Court could throw the country back into violent chaos, according to experts watching the events.
The Supreme Constitutional Court effectively dissolved parliament, declaring that a third of the legislators were elected unconstitutionally. It also upheld the right of Ahmed Shafiq, an ally of former Prime Minister Hosni Mubarak, to run in the presidential runoff election.
David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, said the rulings are “bad news” for the stability of Egypt.
“It’s an opening round and a showdown between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood that’s been brewing for months,” he said, referring to the Islamist group that is set to lose its parliamentary majority. “Now we’re about to see the full out showdown in the streets. There’s very likely to be a lot of violence and protests.”
After the ruling, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed legislative powers, just two days after it gave the military the right to arrest civilians, reviving memories of the Mubarak government’s emergency law.
Egyptians already were out in force Thursday, accusing the military of carrying out a soft coup. They gathered outside the court and in Tahrir Square, the site of the mass protests that forced Mubarak to resign last year. After the revolution, many Egyptians were hopeful that power would be returned to the people.
But Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that hope was short-lived because the Supreme Constitutional Court is not neutral.
“It is very much part of the so-called old regime. I think the response among revolutionaries and the Muslim Brotherhood is obviously not going to be received very well by those who stood to benefit from changes in Egyptian society,” he said. “I think you’re going to see significant people pour into the streets and demand change.”
Shafiq will be running against Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party during the runoff on Saturday and Sunday.
Shafiq delivered what Cook described as essentially a “victory speech” on Thursday. Despite the confidence, Cook said the outcome of the election is not entirely decided.
“You are going to see significant opposition and activity opposed to these rulings and I think it really does suggest that it’s anybody’s presidency,” he said.
Isobel Coleman, also of the Council on Foreign Relations, said one should expect backroom negotiations beyond the election.
“As people recognize that these counterrevolutionary forces are just not moving over, then the big question becomes what will the major players do? We’ve seen some discussion going on between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military,” she said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington is monitoring the implications of the Egyptian court decisions.
“In keeping with SCAF commitments, the U.S. expects to see a full transfer of power to a democratically-elected civilian government,” she said. “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people.”
Clinton said she expects the election to be held in an atmosphere that is conducive to it being peaceful, fair and free. But even if that happens, Coleman said she expects the polls to have shorter lines than the last election.
“People have already been somewhat disillusioned with the whole process. You’re going to see low voter turnout for this runoff. There’s a sense that the runoff was predestined. That the judiciary is going to make a decision,” she said.
Calls for both a boycott of the election, and a full return to Tahrir Square, are circulating across the country, signaling Egypt’s revolution is far from over.