CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s new president on Sunday ordered a parliament dominated by his Islamist party to reconvene, challenging the authority of the generals who had dissolved the assembly in line with a court order.
President Mohamed Mursi’s decree appeared to catch off guard the generals who handed power to him on June 30. State media said the army’s supreme council held an emergency meeting and a council member, declining to be named, told Reuters the generals had not been given prior warning.
The military had been running Egypt since Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. But, shortly before the handover to the elected president, the army put some curbs on the presidency and gave itself legislative powers.
The president’s decision hands those powers back to a parliament that was led by his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
After a little more than a week in office, Mursi’s move highlights the power struggle likely to define his term, pitting long repressed Islamists against generals used to calling the shots and an establishment full of Mubarak-era officials.
It also threatens a fresh legal wrangle over whether Mursi can overrule a decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve parliament, creating more uncertainty at a time when the economy is creaking after 17 months of political turmoil.
“President Mohamed Mursi ordered the reconvening of the elected parliament to hold sessions,” according to a presidential statement read out by Mursi’s aide Yasser Ali.
Saad Husseini, a senior member of the Brotherhood, said he did not believe the military would challenge Mursi’s decree.
“We are confident the military council will not drag the country into a political whirlpool,” he said.
Analysts said they had not expected an easy relationship between the army and the Islamist president, but most believed Mursi would tread cautiously to avoid any swift escalation. The Brotherhood has repeatedly said it does not want confrontation.
“This is an early conflict. Everyone was expecting this to happen but not now, unless this decision was taken in agreement with the army council, but I doubt this,” said political analyst Mohamed Khalil.
Mursi’s decree was announced shortly after he received his first official U.S. visitor in the presidential palace, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, whose country gives $1.3 billion of aid to Egypt’s military every year.
Burns praised Egypt’s progress but said there was more to be done. “It will be critical to see a democratically elected parliament in place and an inclusive process to draft a new constitution that upholds universal rights,” Burns said after meeting Mursi and before the decree was issued.
After a call for a show of support by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, with the biggest bloc in parliament, a few hundred people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “We love you Mursi,” they chanted, along with “Down with military rule.”
Mursi has resigned from both the Brotherhood and its party.
In his decree, Mursi called for an early parliamentary election for a new assembly within 60 days of the nation approving a new constitution, which has still to be drafted.
That suggested a possible attempt at compromise by indicating the assembly, criticized by some for a poor initial performance and dissolved by court order just months after it was elected, would not serve a full four-year term.
“The military wanted to dissolve parliament and the Brotherhood doesn’t. There has to be somewhere they can meet in the middle or there will be an indefinite stand-off,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
“This could be a compromise arrangement for the short term, so the military gets part of what it wanted - a new parliament in coming months - and Islamists can avoid a situation where the military dominates a legislative authority,” he said.
The Supreme Constitutional Court called an emergency session on Monday to review the Mursi’s move, the court’s deputy Maher Sami told the state news agency MENA, signaling there could be a prolonged legal wrangle.
Farouk Soltan, the former head of the court who was in charge when it ruled on parliament and who heard Mursi’s oath, said the president’s decision had no legal basis. He was speaking to the website of the state newspaper Al-Ahram.
Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch said: “I am not sure that power struggles played out in the legal sphere and which add to the legal uncertainty of the past year and a half are healthy, either for us or the rule of law.”
Signaling the legal battle ahead, lawyer and liberal MP Abul Ezz el-Hariry told Reuters he would file a challenge to Mursi’s ruling in a court on Monday. Hariry was a presidential candidate who fell out of the race in the first round.
But the move won support beyond the Brotherhood’s loyal backers. The member of parliament for the liberal Justice Party, Mustafa al-Naggar, described it on Facebook as a “midway solution to exit the crisis and the legislative gap.”
Tarek Elmalt of the moderate Islamist Wasat Party called it a compromise because it meant parliament would not serve a full term but would stay until a new assembly was elected, which he said was preferable to giving the army legislative powers.
“So this is just a temporary procedure that solves our current crisis for the next two or three months,” he said.
The Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the lower house of parliament dissolved on June 14 after finding fault with the election process. The generals implemented the decision two days later, a move the Brotherhood has challenged in another court.
The army also issued a decree outlining presidential powers on June 17, the last day of the run-off election.
Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Tom Pfeiffer and Patrick Werr; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Tim Pearce