Middle East

Q&A: Egypt's Supreme Court rulings

Protesters show anger at the SCC ruling
Image caption The SCC decisions have led to protests in Cairo

The ruling by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) that two laws - on political rights and parliamentary elections - are unconstitutional has changed the country's political landscape and thrown the roadmap to civilian rule into turmoil.

Based on the verdicts, Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) announced that the country's parliament has been dissolved. The decision was denounced as unlawful by Egypt's largest political movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.

On 14 June, the court ruled as unconstitutional one law that would have barred former President Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq from running for president, and another on parliamentary elections.

The two decisions, which may have delighted some liberals and secularists, have come as a severe blow to Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), who have now lost their overwhelming majority in parliament.

Why did the court decide the law on political rights was unconstitutional?

Among many other reasons cited, the SCC found that the amendment, introduced recently by parliament to strip certain Mubarak-era officials of their political rights, punishes people on the basis of positions they held in the previous administration, rather than on the grounds of actual crimes they committed during office.

When the law passed through parliament, the Higher Presidential Election Commission initially disqualified Mr Shafiq, but reinstated him after he challenged the constitutionality of the law, and referred the legislation itself to the SCC to rule on it.

As per the ruling, the runoff between Ahmad Shafiq and the MB's candidate, Muhammad Mursi, will be held as scheduled on 16-17 June.

Why did the court take a similar decision on the parliamentary elections law?

The SCC found that the law on parliamentary elections breached the principle of equality between independent and party candidates, and so concluded that the legislation was unconstitutional.

Although the problem with the law was related to one-third of the seats, the entire People's Assembly - the lower house of parliament in charge of legislating - was affected and considered wholly invalid.

How did the problem with this law start?

The problem started when political forces, mainly Islamists, disagreed with the decision of the Scaf to hold elections on the basis of a 50%-50% split between independent and party candidates.

Image caption Mr Shafiq has pledged to end chaos and return order and stability

At the time, the political forces accused the Scaf of giving an opportunity to former Mubarak-era officials to return to mainstream politics as independents. Under pressure, the Scaf changed the law to hold elections on the basis of two-thirds for party candidates and one-third for independent candidates.

However, the main political forces pushed further, demanding that individuals affiliated with political parties be allowed to contest the one-third of seats dedicated to independents. The SCC found this to be in breach of the principle of equality.

Who is most impacted by the SCC rulings?

The SCC decisions, particularly the one on the parliamentary elections law, have hit Islamists the hardest. This is because the MB and Salafists together have had the upper hand in parliament after they won about 70% of the seats in the last parliamentary elections.

But their popularity has fallen steadily ever since. In any new election, it may be more difficult to achieve a similar majority.

As the party with the largest number of seats, the MB was also expected to form a government, a hope that has now been dashed by the SCC rulings.

What else could the SCC decision on the parliamentary election law impact?

The SCC decision could also affect the constituent assembly formed by the parliament, tasked with drafting a new constitution.

This is despite the fact that all laws and procedures adopted by parliament before the SCC rulings were declared to be still valid.

How then could it be affected?

The Constitutional Declaration entrusted the parliament with electing a 100-member committee to draft the constitution.

A first assembly was named earlier this year, but in March it was suspended. The panel was dominated by Islamists, angering liberals, secularists, and Copts, among others. It also led to withdrawals from the assembly and lawsuits filed with the Administrative Court against its formation.

The court studied the case and decided against the formation of the assembly, emphasising that all members on the committee must be from outside the parliament.

This threw the process of drafting the constitution into turmoil and led to a long process of negotiations between liberal and Islamist political forces, brokered by the Scaf.

They reached agreement on new rules of selection on 7 June.

But the Islamists, to avoid the same scenario, tried to pass this agreement in the form of law through parliament. They drafted the law and approved it late on Monday, 11 June. For this law to be valid, it must have been ratified by the Scaf and published on the same day in the official gazette which is issued only on Monday and Thursday.

But this did not materialise, and the SCC passed its ruling on the parliamentary elections law on Thursday 14 June.

Therefore, the law on the constituent assembly has no impact. More importantly, when the political forces formed the assembly for the second time on 12 June, they included members of parliament in it.

This leaves the door wide open for the assembly to be challenged once again before the Administrative Court. According to media reports, a number of lawsuits have already been lodged with the court.

If the court rules again against the formation of the assembly, then Islamists will have also lost a significant role they were expected to play in the process of drafting the constitution.

What is the impact of the parliament election ruling on the presidential election?

The SCC ruling on the parliamentary elections law has left the MB with only one hope to cling to some power and prevent what it says would be a return to the old regime: the presidential elections.

Although the SCC decision hit the Islamists hardest, the MB can could now be in a stronger position when it calls on revolutionary and political forces to support its candidate, Muhammad Mursi, in the runoff, on the basis that, if Mr Shafiq wins, it would mean a return to the old regime, particularly in the absence of a parliament.

However, there is a counter-argument that the ruling on the political rights law has come as a moral victory for Mr Shafiq in his presidential bid, and on the other hand has dispirited the MB and its candidate.

What did the liberal forces receive benefit from the rulings?

The court rulings appear to have come to the delight of some liberal and secularist forces, who have been very worried by the rise of Islamists on the political stage and their control of parliament and the constituent assembly.

This was evident in statements by several liberal MPs expressing happiness and relief at the court decisions and even expressing support for Mr Shafiq in the runoff.

What happens next?

On 16 June, the Scaf took the highly controversial decision to dissolve parliament. According to the Constitutional Declaration, it has no power to issue such a ruling. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest force in the legislative body, accused the military of wanting to monopolise power.

But the Scaf will likely have to take some measures to re-arrange the roadmap, and define temporarily the powers of the coming president, particularly as there will be no parliament when he takes office.

Also, the situation of the constituent assembly remains unclear.

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