After a quiet opening fortnight, Mohamed Morsi's presidency has taken a confrontational turn.
Two decrees in the space of a week have boosted the newly elected president's credentials as an adversary of Egypt's junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The first launched a new investigation into the deaths of protesters in the wake of the January revolution. If allowed to conduct its business unimpeded, this could prove damning for individuals within the military’s command structure. The second, meanwhile, called for the reinstatement of the country's newly elected parliament, a body that had been dissolved by the military on the eve of the presidential vote.
Some believed Morsi’s influence had been neutered before he had even entered office. Despite assuming the trappings of power, he faces significant limitations on his ability to act.
The military-led transition that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak saw a series of political maneuverings that cast doubt on the likelihood of an election taking place at all.
The SCAF had continuously reshaped the contours of the electoral race, aided by a proactive judiciary that disqualified three front-running candidates and declared that the law governing last year’s parliamentary elections was unconstitutional. Weeks of political and legal uncertainty were then compounded as the polls closed on June 18: an eleventh hour decree by the junta reclaimed key executive powers for itself, notably reserving the right to oversee the writing of a new constitution if existing drafters fail to perform adequately.
Furthermore, the military-drafted budget that came into force on Morsi’s first day in office leaves little room for new policies. Almost eighty percent of spending has already been allotted to subsidies, public sector salaries, and debt repayment, leaving only a small tranche with which to fulfill campaign promises on improved public services.
Yet despite these constraints, Morsi has now fired his opening salvos across the bows of SCAF authority. In calling for the reinstatement of the Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament, he is openly defying the generals. According to constitutional expert Dr Nathan Brown, this represents ‘a serious confrontation. This is an attempt to roll back the clock, but this time with the presidency in [Brotherhood] hands and with the SCAF fully committed to its June supplementary constitutional declaration.’
Nevertheless, the move may be less radical than it first appears. Morsi’s decree rejects the SCAF’s most recent political manipulations, but at this stage continues to comply with aspects of the political roadmap put forward by the junta in June. This emphasised the temporary nature of Egypt’s parliament, declaring that: "elections will take place one month from the day the new constitution is approved by national referendum."
In addition, the scope of Morsi’s latest decree remains limited. In targeting the SCAF’s dissolution of parliament, he has avoided the potential for a bolder challenge against the legal ruling which made this possible in the first place. This suggests that the move is more symbolic than it is motivated by a genuine belief that he holds the power to reinstate parliament.
After weeks of debate over the potential shape of a Morsi presidency, its contours are beginning to emerge. His approach to the parliamentary issue reveals a pragmatic attitude to challenging the military, testing the waters without disrupting them altogether.
The inevitable upshot of this opening gambit will be a revived debate over the parliament’s dissolution, pushing the issue back into the open and eliciting a greater degree of clarity over its future. A smart move, it seems, and one that appears to have knocked the usually confident SCAF off-kilter. The junta’s reaction will reveal much about where power really lies in the new Egypt.