Egypt is embroiled in a volatile power struggle and there's no telling who will back down. On Tuesday, Egypt's parliament briefly convened in defiance of the ruling military council that ordered the parliament to dissolve last month. Parliament's five-minute session, a largely symbolic act, was ordered by Egypt's newly-elected President Mohammed Morsi who set the stage for a conflict with the military chiefs. Egypt doesn't really have a lot of experience with this sort of thing—before Morsi was elected, the country was under the authoritarian control of Hosni Mubarak for 30 years—so there's a few ways this could conceivably play out:
The military reasserts control. As was evidenced by the fall of Mubarak, Egypt's military isn't afraid to take over and it could very well do so again. After Morsi won last month's elections, the military declared itself Egypt's legislative authority and bestowed itself with control over the nation's budget and the drafting of a new constitution. The military chiefs also diluted Morsi's powers as president. Will it take even more power away from Morsi?
Today, in a display of calm, the military called back the soldiers that encircled Egypt's parliament ahead of the five-minute session, but they could reassert martial law at any moment. That became clear on Monday when the military sent a warning shot to Morsi, saying "the armed forces sides with the 'constitution, legitimacy and law'"—language the Associated Press says "means the powerful military will not stand by and watch a ruling by the country's highest court ignored or breached." The legal decision the military referred to was a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling Monday rejecting Morsi's calls to reconvene parliament. With Egypt as divided as it is today, it's very possible that an ensuing constitutional crisis could lead to bloodshed.
If the military did reassert control, it would face significant outside pressure, notes the Los Angeles Times. "If the generals overplay their hand, they will lose popular support and antagonize Egypt's allies, including the United States, which provides the military with $1.3 billion a year in assistance," the paper wrote. "Both Congress and the Obama administration have put the generals on notice that those funds are in jeopardy if the transition to democracy is thwarted. An attempt to shut down a reconvened parliament would be interpreted inside and outside Egypt as just such an obstruction."
Parliament and Morsi assert power and a judicial power struggle ensues. If parliament reconvenes and tries to assert power, the military will likely challenge the action in court, a legal struggle that could take months or even years, according to the Financial Times' Roula Khalaf. "Even if lawmakers return to parliament in the coming weeks, any decision by the legislature will be open to challenge in court, throwing Egypt into an even more pervasive state of confusion," Khalaf writes. "The military council has enough legal tools in its pocket. It will not be shy in using them." Nathan Brown, a Middle East analyst and constitutional expert, agrees. “What’s going on is a naked struggle for power but what is odd is that every step is carefully cloaked in legal terms." If the military chiefs decided to litigate this issue, Khalaf says the series of constitutional and administrative court rulings will take "many months if not years."
Disagreements between Egyptian political parties leads to violence . If a power vacuum continues, fighting between Egypt's political parties could turn violent. As Ahram Online reports today, Morsi is already facing heat from political opponents.
Leftist and liberal party MP's, including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Tagammu Party, Wafd Party and Free Egyptians, boycotted the parliament session on Tuesday.
The prestigious Judge's Club threatened on Monday to bring legal action against Morsi for "defying court orders." Clashes erupted outside of the People's Assembly (lower house) as MPs deliberated for a total of 12 minutes.
In the streets, Morsi supporters are chanting “The people and the president are one hand" while his opponents are yelling "Down with the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.” Whatever happens next, it's clear that dramatic political instability is going to be the norm, at least for the next few months.