CAIRO — Hours after Egypt’s Parliament met in defiance of a court order, the country’s highest court ruled Tuesday that President Mohammed Morsi had ordered the legislative body back in session illegally, a political tit for tat that underscored how the ruling military council, the court and Egypt’s first democratically elected president are embroiled in a public battle for power.
Thousands took to the streets in support of Morsi’s order reinstating the lower house of Parliament, and celebrated after the legislative body’s first session was over. Morsi on Sunday had ordered it to meet despite an earlier court ruling that dissolved the legislative body, which is dominated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group Morsi was a member of for decades until he fulfilled a campaign promise to leave the group after his election.
The parliamentary speaker, Saad el Katatni, held a symbolic session that lasted less than an hour, and argued in a brief speech that Morsi’s order hadn’t contravened the court.
“The Parliament knows quite well its duties and rights and doesn’t interfere in the judiciary’s work,” he said.
Shortly afterward, the court ruled that Morsi had acted illegally in calling the Parliament into session, sharpening a confrontation that’s existed since the three-decade regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned in February 2011 after popular protests. The court and the military council, made up of Mubarak appointees, are facing off against Islamist parties led by the Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed by Mubarak but big victors in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections.
U.S. officials are concerned about the crisis, which threatens to plunge Egypt into prolonged instability. Egypt’s prominent liberal parties, including supporters of the anti-Mubarak revolution but a distinct minority in Parliament, boycotted Tuesday’s session, indicating deep divisions within Parliament itself.
“We strongly urge dialogue and concerted effort on the part of all to try to deal with the problems that are understandable but have to be resolved in order to avoid any kind of difficulties that could derail the transition that is going on,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Vietnam, where she was making an official visit.
Mohamed Habib a former Muslim Brotherhood official who was jailed under Mubarak, said the old regime had always used the law to justify its crimes and the military council was an extension of it.
“The repressive regime has control over political and economic life, and they can commit crimes and be corrupt as much as they want but by ‘abiding by the law,’ ” Habib said.
Alaa al Aswany, a prominent novelist and founding member of the political movement Kefaya, wrote on his Twitter account: “The Constitutional Court judges were appointed by Mubarak, they suspended the president’s decision and reinstated the decision of the marshal,” a reference to Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the ruling military council. “It is a clear message to the elected president to exercise power away from the military.”
Security forces made no attempt to block parliamentarians as they arrived at the assembly building. Supporters chanted, “Free revolutionaries, we will continue our journey,” and “Morsi, Morsi!”
Tarek Abbas, a 54-year-old engineer, said reconvening Parliament was in the country’s best interest. “Now the lawmakers can monitor the SCAF-appointed government and the president himself,” he said.
Momen Zaarour, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, said he attended the session to support Morsi’s decree.
“We respect the judiciary’s rulings and the constitutional court’s ruling,” Zaarour said. He added that the Parliament’s constitutional committee was studying the court’s decision, indicating that lawmakers wouldn’t bow to the ruling and that the standoff would continue.
For the second day in a row, Morsi appeared publicly in a military graduation ceremony seated between Tantawi and Sami Anan, the military chief of staff, despite the rising tensions.
The elections, which were supposed to bring stability and democratic governance, have instead created even more uncertainty. Katatni said he’d appeal the court’s ruling June 14 that led to the dissolution of the Parliament’s lower house on the grounds that seats had been contested in violation of election laws.
On Monday, the court issued a sharp statement rejecting Morsi’s decree, saying that “All the rulings and decisions of the Supreme Constitutional Court are final and not subject to appeal . . . and are binding for all state institutions.”
Speaking on June 30, after his inauguration, Morsi hinted at his discontent over Parliament’s dissolution, saying that the military council “has fulfilled their promise that they will never be a substitute for the people’s will” and pledged that “the armed forces will go back to the barracks.”
Special correspondent Hassan el Naggar contributed to this article.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.