Egypt’s political transition has been sidetracked once again by a ruling from the country's labyrinthine court system. At issue are elections for the lower house of parliament slated to begin next month.
As usual, the details are a bit technical, but the decision could derail — or, at least, delay — an expected landslide victory by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the People's Assembly.
On Wednesday Egypt's Administrative Court overturned a presidential decree calling for elections starting April 22 due to concerns about the constitutionality of a law regulating the polling and executive overreach.
The Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) passed that law in January and then amended it in February based on a ruling from the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC). However, the Shura Council refused to send the law back to the court for final approval, as such action is not explicitly called for in the constitution. Aware that the changes did not fully address the SCC's concerns, the Administrative Court stepped in to ensure the law does not run afoul of the constitution.
In addition, the Administrative Court ruled that President Mohamed Morsi issued the decree calling for elections without consulting the cabinet, which it said violates the constitution.
This decision represents an uncommon victory for the rule of law and judicial independence in Morsi's Egypt. In November, the president replaced the public prosecutor with a political supporter and decreed himself above judicial oversight. Days later, Brotherhood supporters surrounded the SCC to prevent judges from entering and ruling against the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly.
Ironically, the Administrative Court used the constitution — drafted by that assembly and eventually passed in a referendum whose legitimacy is still disputed — as the standard for overturning Morsi's February decree on holding elections.
Today's decision, at least, shows that the judges are still willing to protect their turf.
Reuters reported that Morsi would challenge the Administrative Court's ruling, but the presidency later issued a statement denying that. The opposition National Salvation Front, which announced it would boycott the elections, welcomed the court's decision and called on the president to ensure the SCC would not be surrounded again.
The coming days hold two main questions: Will SCC judges be physically barred from entering the courthouse to rule again on the constitutionality of the electoral law? If not, it is almost certain that the court will find the Shura Council's amendments inadequate.
This begs the question: How will the country get a satisfactory electoral law if the Shura Council refuses to respect the court's decisions? The next chapter in Egypt's political crisis could emerge from that answer.
In any case, it is unclear how the SCC-mandated changes to the electoral law would affect the results of the election. Yet with most of the secular parties set to boycott the vote, an Islamist-dominated parliament is guaranteed.
In the meantime, Egypt's political transition is kicked a bit further down the road.