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Court suspends Egypt's parliament election

Thursday - 3/7/2013, 1:40am  ET

Two Egyptian police officers wear masks as they stand guard during clashes with protesters, not seen, near the state security building in Port Said, Egypt, Wednesday, March 6, 2013. Clashes between protesters and police have broken out in this restive Egyptian port city despite efforts by the military to separate the two sides. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian court on Wednesday ordered the suspension of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April, opening a legal battle likely to delay the vote and deepening the political crisis between the Islamist president and his opponents that has polarized the nation for months.

The new confusion surrounding the election underlined the paralysis gripping Egypt, between political deadlock, infighting among state institutions, a faltering economy and a wave of protests, strikes and clashes against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that has spiraled for months around the country.

In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, scene of heavy clashes between protesters and police that have left six dead since Sunday, the violence entered a fourth day, dragging in the military. Protesters hurled stones at police firing tear gas, as army troops struggled to keep the two sides apart.

Morsi's Islamist supporters and some in the public exhausted by the turmoil have viewed the parliamentary elections as a step toward bringing some stability, accusing the opposition of stirring up unrest to derail the voting. But the mainly liberal and secular opposition had called a boycott of the vote, saying Morsi must first find some political consensus and ease the wave of popular anger. Whether or not the opposition boycotts, the Islamists would likely win a parliamentary majority.

The new court ruling is unlikely to defuse the tension, bringing the dispute into the judiciary, which has repeatedly been used by the various sides in Egypt's political battles.

The Cairo administrative court ruled that the Islamist-dominated parliament had improperly pushed through a law organizing the elections without allowing the Supreme Constitutional Court to review it to ensure it conforms with the constitution. The court ordered the law referred to the constitutional court and the election suspended in the meantime. The court annulled a decree by Morsi calling the election.

Morsi's opponents quickly pointed to the ruling as further proof of their accusations that Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood are mismanaging the country, trying to dominate power without reaching consensus with others or abiding by the law.

"The mess continues courtesy of epic failure of governance," prominent opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said in a Tweet. He added a jab that ignoring the rule of law "is characteristic of a fascist state."

Morsi's legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad Gadallah, told The Associated Press that the government will respect the court decision to suspend the election and refer the law the constitutional court.

In the meantime, authorities will delay the opening of the application period for candidates, which had been due to start Saturday, Gadallah said. That could push back the entire election process. The multi-phase election was supposed to begin in April 22 and last for nearly two months.

Gadallah also said the state would appeal the administrative court ruling. The aim of the appeal would be to establish the right of the president to call the elections, which the court called into question by annulling the decree.

The president's office later put out a statement saying it supports the rule of law and respects the court ruling, but it made no mention of an appeal.

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."

"We are regaining the state back," a voice in the room called out, a reference to accusations that Morsi had previously defied the judiciary.

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 judiciary's supervision. He later revoked this right, in the face of massive protests, but he had already used the powers to appoint a new chief prosecutor and prevent the courts from blocking Islamists drafting a new constitution.

At the heart of the election dispute is a loosely worded article in the newly adopted constitution that prevents 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.

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