An administrative court on Tuesday suspended a decree by the military-led government that authorized soldiers to arrest civilians. The court’s action raised the possibility that the judges may also try to roll back other aspects of the generals’ recent expansion of their powers.
The ruling was the first time that a civilian court had directly challenged the power of the governing military council. It came two days after the generals, who took power when Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president last year, recognized the election of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood as the country’s first civilian president.
The court is hearing a series of cases filed by the Brotherhood that challenge the generals’ actions, especially the dissolution of the Islamist-led Parliament and the issuance of an interim constitution that strips the president of most of his powers. The legal appeals are part of a three-pronged strategy, which includes large protests and negotiations behind the scenes, that the Brotherhood is pursuing in a tug of war with the generals for control of the next phase of Egypt’s political transition.
The arrest decree had reimposed martial law, and was the first signal of the military council’s last-minute power grab. It was issued by the justice minister a few days before the presidential runoff that was supposed to be followed by the end of the generals’ rule.
The court, in suspending the decree, issued an unusually broad decision that referred not only to specific statutes and texts but also to an underlying legal tradition. The court held that authorizing soldiers to arrest civilians violated “constitutional principles dating from the 1923 Constitution” all the way up to the interim constitution, which the military council itself issued in March 2011 to legitimate its power, according to the Web site of the official newspaper, Al Ahram. The report said the court further found that the military-appointed justice minister had wrongly usurped “the power of constitutional legislation.”
Heba Morayef, a researcher at Human Rights Watch tracking the issue, said the courts “have never had this kind of face-off before” with the generals. The court that suspended the decree had previously ruled that the military violated the rights of female detainees by subjecting them to forced “virginity tests,” but the conflict over that case was less direct because the generals insisted that they had never condoned such practices.
The same court, Ms. Morayef said, may now seek to reinstate Parliament, which the generals dissolved the day before the presidential vote. The generals said they had acted on the basis of a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court that found faults in the system used to elect one-third of Parliament’s members. Lawyers for the Brotherhood counter that the administrative court should be allowed to order a narrower remedy instead, such as a new election only for the seats in question, not the whole Parliament.
The court said Tuesday that it would rule on that matter on July 9, and would put off ruling on whether the generals had the authority to issue their interim constitution without a referendum.
But Mokhtar El Ashry, a lawyer for the Brotherhood’s political wing, said the issues were different enough that Tuesday’s ruling offered little guidance about the other questions.
Hossam Eissa, a prominent lawyer, argued that it was out of the question for the administrative court to overturn the constitutional court’s decision. He chalked up Tuesday’s ruling to political maneuvers.
“I think all of that was a result of negotiations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood in the last 24 hours,” he said, reflecting a widespread cynicism about the courts. “Of course, most of the judges will be angry if I say that publicly, because it means they have no independence. But I think the military are giving a few things to the Muslim Brotherhood, and keeping what is essential.” He said that the interim constitution was more important to the military than the arrest decree, and that it provided other justifications for keeping soldiers in the streets.