Thursday March 7, 2013

CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian administrative court on Wednesday ordered the suspension of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin next month, throwing the country’s politics deeper into confusion.

The ruling is likely to force a delay in the elections and adds a new legal battle to Egypt’s intertwined crises. The country is caught in political fights between the Islamist president and the mainly liberal and secular opposition, and at the same time protests against President Mohammed Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood have mounted around the country.

In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, scene of some of the heaviest protests, a new rounds of violence entered a fourth day as protesters clashed with police even as the military tried to intervene to stop the unrest.

The court verdict was in response to dozens of complaints questioning the legality of the law organizing the election, which Morsi’s Islamist allies pushed through parliament.

The court ruled that the process of the law’s passage was improper. Presiding judge Abdel-Meguid el-Muqanen said that the law must be reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court to determine its conformity to the constitution. He ruled that, in the meantime, the presidential decree calling for elections based on the law was annulled.

Morsi’s legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad Gadallah, said the state would appeal the administrative court ruling. At the same time, he said, it will submit the law to the constitutional court for review. The appeal aims to establish the right of the president to call the elections, which the court called into question by annulling the decree.

But he said that during the appeals, the government would respect the ruling suspending the election. "The verdict will be respected and implemented," he told The Associated Press.

He said the opening of the application period for candidates, which had been due to start Saturday, would be delayed in light of the ruling.

That could delay the entire election process. The multi-phase election was supposed to begin in April 22 and last for nearly two months.

"As it stands, we don’t have elections, even if temporarily," said Negad Borai, a rights activist. "This reinforces the political crisis."

The ruling Islamists have presented the election as a step toward bringing stability to the crisis-ridden country. But their call of the vote amid the wave of protests that began in November and has since spiraled had seemed to heighten the crisis.

The opposition had called a boycott of the vote, saying now was not the time for an election and that Morsi must first loosen his grip on power. The opposition has accused Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood of monopolizing rule and imposing their own decisions, and say the group has shown itself as incapable of running the country.

Morsi’s supporters, in turn, say Islamists have a right to rule after repeated election victories and accuse the opposition of trying to use street unrest to reverse their wins. Even without the opposition boycott, Islamists would likely win a majority in the upcoming parliament elections.

The opposition had opposed the election law, expressing concerns over gerrymandering by the Brotherhood, which dominates the parliament, and complaining it was not consulted before it was drafted.

In its ruling on Wednesday, the administrative court said parliament had not observed the right of the constitutional court to review the election law, including any revisions in it, to ensure it conforms to the constitution. When the judge read the verdict, lawyers in the court room broke out in chants of "God is great."

A voice in the room said: "We are regaining the state back."

Egypt’s political crisis has been mired in various judicial disputes, including an outcry among the opposition following Morsi’s decision last November to grant himself immunity from the judicary’s supervision. He later revoked this right, in the face of massive protests. 

At the heart of the election dispute is a loosely worded article in the newly adopted constitution that deprives the constitutional court from reviewing election laws after parliament passes them. The administrative court appeared to be arguing that the article means parliament must consult the constitutional court before passing the law.

Initially, parliament sent the draft bill to the constitutional court, which rejected it, asking lawmakers to amend nearly a dozen articles, including the drawing of districts. After some quick revisions, the parliament passed the law without going back to the court to ensure the final version met its recommendations.

"Ignorance and manipulation of the essence of the rule of law...is a characteristic of a fascist state," prominent opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account soon after the verdict. "To those who criticized our boycotting of elections ... our respect of the rule of law is out of respect for ourselves and our nation."

ElBaradei also criticized Morsi for failing to reach out for dialogue amid rising violence.

Bahey Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, said the parliament’s attitude was disrespectful of the judiciary. He said the legal dispute over the parliament and the law organizing it won’t end even if the government wins an appeal.

"This adds, for the tenth time, a new element of uncertainty for Egypt’s future steps," he said. "Regardless of whether the elections are held or not, Egypt appears to be heading toward more chaos."

Protests and violent clashes have spread in recent days, and increasingly the rage has been directed at the police. Many protesters say the security forces have been using excessive force against them and that Morsi has backed them in their abuses.

For the fourth straight day, clashes broke out Wednesday in the restive Port Said city, on the Mediterranean and at the northern tip of the Suez Canal, between rock-throwing protesters and police firing tear gas despite efforts by the military to separate the two sides.

At least six people were killed since Sunday in the city’s unrest, including three policemen. Hundreds were injured.

The city has been in turmoil since late January. Furious at the president and the security forces, residents have been waging campaign of protests and strikes amounting to an outright revolt against the central government. The turmoil has dragged in the military to an extent unprecedented since the army handed over power to Egypt’s first democratically elected president in June.

On Wednesday, troops moved to clear a sit-in that protesters have been holding in front of the city’s main government complex for weeks. Soldiers took down tents, banners and pictures of civilians recently killed in clashes with police. The military police opened the area to traffic for the first time in weeks and sought to negotiate with the protesters for an end to the standoff.

Nevertheless, clashes still erupted Wednesday, with protesters hurling stones at police at the nearby security headquarters, prompting volleys of tear in response.

The turmoil in Port Said began Jan. 26, after a Cairo court issued death sentences against 21 defendants -- mostly Port Said residents -- for involvement in a deadly soccer riot in the city in February 2012 that killed 74 people, mostly fans of a rival Cairo soccer club, Al-Ahly. Many in the city saw the verdicts as politicized.

Violent protests over the verdicts killed more than 40 people, mostly at the hands of police.

Clashes erupted again on Sunday after word emerged that the defendants in the court case were removed from a city prison, ahead of a Saturday court session, in which the death sentences are to be confirmed, and new verdicts in the soccer case to be announced, including against police officers.

Many fear that violence could on Saturday after the verdict.

Cairo has already been struck by a wave of protests by soccer fans of Al-Ahly club directed at the police also ahead of the verdict, where they held a rally outside a main security headquarters and set a security vehicle on fire.

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Michael reported from Port Said, Egypt.