Egypt's Political Power Struggle Could Escalate

Egypt's transition to a civilian democracy is snarled in a tangled confusion of court rulings and military and presidential decrees. There are growing calls, including from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for dialogue to resolve the crisis.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Weeks after winning election, the new president of Egypt is trying to manage a constitutional crisis. Mohammed Morsi has been pushing back against the army that limited his authority and the court that struck against his political party.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

His party is the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi did not even have a chance to take power before Egypt's army took most of that power away. The country's highest court also sent home the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament.

INSKEEP: A few days ago, Morsi called on the parliament to convene anyway. Now he's having to calm the situation, as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Before leaving for Saudi Arabia this week, President Mohammed Morsi dispatched his spokesman to do some damage control.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESIDENTIAL STATEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: The presidential statement declared that Morsi would respect the high court's rulings, including the one that squelched his efforts to revive the lower house of parliament. Morsi supporters have portrayed his defiance of the generals who dissolved parliament as an effort to stand up for the will of the people, and analyst Hassan Nafaa at Cairo University says that's how some Egyptians do see it.

HASSAN NAFAA: Because the fight, as you know, is not a legal fight, it is a political fight, but run by legal and judicial tools.

KENYON: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, due here tomorrow, has already called for negotiations instead of confrontation, but Nafaa says there are signs that this fight may still be escalating. He says Morsi may be contemplating more moves against the military council knows to Egyptians by the acronym SCAF.

NAFAA: So this is a big fight, and I think it will not stop there. I think maybe the elected president will try to limit the power of the SCAF itself.

KENYON: But it's not clear that Morsi has any more authority to challenge the military's assumption of executive and legislative powers than he did to challenge the dissolution of parliament. Thus far, Egypt's transition to a post-Mubarak era has been unfolding as a fight in which one side, the fledgling Islamist president, is largely unarmed and evidently unused to waging a power struggle in public.

In Morsi's defense, much of the damage to the institutions Egyptians are hoping will sustain a new democracy, was done before he took office. Egypt's parliament has long been seen as ineffective, and many here view the high court as a politicized hold over from the Mubarak regime. But New York-based analyst Michael Wahid Hanna with the Century Fund, says be that as it may, the president's tactics are turning a political power struggle into something much more alarming.

MICHAEL WAHID HANNA: What we have here is a full-blown constitutional crisis. I mean, I think even within this compromised political climate where there are questions about the role of the court, it is a very fateful step to essentially argue that the supreme court decisions should be set aside.

KENYON: Morsi's latest comments suggest that he does recognize the need to respect the judiciary, and officials are now talking of the need for negotiations. But Hanna says the deeper problem with the approach of Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, is that they've allowed this struggled to be defined very narrowly, as a fight between Islamists and the military - very nearly the same choice Egypt's military-backed rulers used for decades to silence western critics as they clung to power.

Hanna says Morsi made a tactical error by not aligning himself with Egypt's other political factions, his natural allies in trying to wrest political power from the military. But both sides, he says, are guilty of ignoring the public they're supposed to be serving.

HANNA: It's been power politics, and what hasn't happened is governance. I think both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi run a real risk of alienating broad swaths of the population if this battle is seen as solely pertaining to institutional self-interests and unmoored from the really, serious, material concerns that everyday Egyptians have about their difficult lives and trying to see them get better.

KENYON: As Secretary of State Clinton prepares for her visit to the presidential palace, analysts say she will need to tread a narrow diplomatic path, but one she's familiar with, pressing for a negotiated solution to the crisis, without raising the specter of Western interference. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.

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