Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court on Thursday ruled that the Islamist-led Parliament must be immediately dissolved, while also blessing the right of Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister to run for president, escalating a battle for power between the remnants of the toppled order and rising Islamists.
The high court, packed with sympathizers of the ousted president, appears to be engaged in a frontal legal assault on the Muslim Brotherhood, the once outlawed organization whose members swept to power in Parliament this spring and whose candidate was the front-runner for the presidency as well. The presidential election runoff is scheduled to go ahead Saturday and Sunday.
The ruling — which critics said amounted to a back-door coup — means that whoever emerges as the winner of the runoff scheduled for this weekend will take power without the check of a sitting Parliament and could even exercise some influence over the election of a future Parliament. It vastly compounds the stakes in the presidential race, raises questions about the ruling military council's commitment to democracy, and makes uncertain the future of a constitutional assembly recently formed by the Parliament as well.
The decision, which dissolves the first freely elected Parliament in Egypt in decades, supercharges a building conflict between the court, which is increasingly presenting itself as a check on Islamists' power, and the Muslim Brotherhood.
There are no grounds to appeal the ruling, issued by the highest judicial authority in Egypt, and it was not clear how the military council, which has been ruling Egypt since Mr. Mubarak's downfall in February 2011, would respond. But in anticipation that the court's ruling could anger citizens, the military authorities reimposed martial law on Wednesday, the eve of the court's decision.
In the weeks before the first round of presidential voting, Parliament had passed a law banning Ahmed Shafik, who was Mr. Mubarak's last prime minister, and other top officials of the Mubarak government from seeking the presidency, which a panel of Mubarak-appointed judges had previously set aside and the court on Thursday ruled unconstitutional.
At the same time, however, the ruling raised new questions about the presidential runoff itself. Although the court did not invalidate Mr. Shafik's candidacy, some argued Thursday that it may have raised new questions about the candidacy of his opponent, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The ruling may have had the effect of invalidating Mr. Morsi's nomination, which relied on his party's presence in Parliament.
Egyptian state media reported that a senior member of the court, Judge Maher Sami, said the ruling would require the immediate breakup and re-election of the Brotherhood-led Parliament, and that the application of the decision could also make it harder for the Brotherhood to re-establish its current sizable plurality. The ruling was immediately criticized by advocates for a transition to democracy and civilian rule.
"Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup," Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, wrote in an online commentary. "We'd be outraged if we weren't so exhausted."
Shadi Hamid, research director of the Brookings Doha Center, said: "From a democratic perspective, it is the worst possible outcome imaginable. The democratically elected Parliament was the biggest step in Egypt's transition, and this casts the entire transition into doubt. It is an anti-democratic decision."
"This is an all-out power grab by the military," he added. "Egypt witnessed a coup today, I think it is fair to say."
The question at issue in the decision was the application of a rule setting aside two-thirds of the seats in Parliament for selection by a system of party lists, also known as proportional representation. The other third was reserved for individual candidates competing in winner-take-all races. Other authorities had decided before the parliamentary election that parties could run their members under their banners as candidates for the individual seats as well as the party list seats, but the court ruled Thursday that the parties should not have been allowed to compete for those seats, and so the results were invalid.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, as the largest and strongest, stands to lose the most from the ruling. As many as 100 of its 235 seats in the 508-member assembly were elected as individual candidates running under its banner. If it lost all of those seats, the Brotherhood would still control the largest bloc in the chamber, and together with the ultraconservative Salafi parties Islamists would still command a majority. But the Brotherhood's leadership of the chamber would be much less decisive.
It was also unclear whether the ruling might force the dissolution of a recently formed 100-member panel picked by Parliament to write a new constitution. Many of its members were chosen because of their position as members of Parliament. The panel was selected only days ago after tense negotiations between the Brotherhood and smaller liberal parties. With Parliament dissolved, administrative courts might strike down the panel, raising questions about how a new panel could be named.
Nor was it clear Thursday how the Muslim Brotherhood or the leaders of the dissolved Parliament would respond to the decision.
The Brotherhood and others in Parliament had passed a law banning top Mubarak government officials like Mr. Shafik from seeking the presidency because they feared that such candidates could reactivate the powerful networks of businessmen, former military officers and security officials who thrived under Mr. Mubarak's ruling party, then push to replicate Mr. Mubarak's style of government as well. But election authorities set aside the law, pending review by the constitutional court.
Mr. Shafik has indeed revived some of those old networks among the old elite, campaigning as a strongman who can reimpose order on the streets and stand as a bulwark to the Islamist Parliament. A former air force general and then minister of aviation, he was long considered for at least a decade an inside candidate to succeed Mr. Mubarak within his autocratic, one-party system, and Mr. Shafik has made no secret of his admiration for his former boss.
When Mr. Shafik and Mr. Morsi advanced to the runoff after the first round of voting — each with just under a quarter of the vote — many Egyptians were shocked to find themselves with a choice between the two polarizing throwbacks to the Mubarak era: the last chief of Mr. Mubarak's government and a conservative leader of the old Islamist opposition.
Many liberal activists and some Islamists began petitioning the court to strike Mr. Shafik from the race in part to block his ascent. Some hoped for a ruling that would require a do-over of the first round in the hope that a less divisive or less conservative candidate might emerge. Many analysts and political activists reasoned that the Mubarak-appointed court might seek to block Mr. Shafik because a do-over that produced a less polarizing alternative might present stiffer competition to Mr. Morsi.
The most likely outcome of the weekend's runoff, if it takes place, remains a subject of intense debate here, with no reliable polls to shed light on the odds. If Mr. Shafik wins, he is likely to face immediate doubts — whether justified or not — about the possibility that elements of the old Mubarak government improperly assisted him to the victory. He also faces pending corruption charges related to his role in the Mubarak government. But by validating his candidacy, the court's ruling has cleared away at least one potential hurdle to his legitimacy.