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Egypt court rules military cannot arrest civilians
CAIRO -- An Egyptian court suspended Tuesday a government decision allowing military police and intelligence to arrest civilians, a setback for the country's military rulers after the decree drew an outcry from opponents who accused them of trying to impose martial law.
The Justice Ministry issued a decree June 13 that allowed military police and intelligence agents to arrest civilians for even minor offenses such as traffic violations. Rights activists feared the new powers essentially reproduced the country's hated emergency law, which had expired just two weeks earlier after more than 30 years in force. The emergency law granted broad powers of arrest and detention to police that were abused over the years and fed the popular anger that led to last year's uprising.
Critics said the new powers of detention could extend the rule of the generals, even if they transfer power to the elected president by the end of this month as promised.
"This [court ruling] is the best possible way to have such a repressive law struck down," said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch in Egypt. "It is a pretty significant decision against a decree that would have permanently given the military this right of law enforcement and encroachment on civilian life."
Military officials said at the time that the new powers were only meant to fill a security vacuum resulting from the uprising when the police force collapsed and disappeared from the streets during the first days of mass protests.
The government, which was appointed by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, can appeal the court decision.
The military has pledged to turn power over to a civilian government once a new president is named. On Sunday, Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood was declared Egypt's first freely elected president in modern history.
However Morsi is facing a power struggle with the military rulers after they stripped the presidency of its major powers one week before the winner of the election was announced.
The ruling military council has used court decrees and constitutional declarations to stop Islamists from controlling all the executive and legislative branches.
The same court postponed a key decision on overturning the ruling military council's order to disband the Islamist-dominated parliament.
The Muslim Brotherhood and another Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, won more than 70 percent of parliament in a free election around the start of the year. The parliament, according to Egypt's interim constitution, is tasked with forming a panel to write the constitution. Twice, liberals walked away from panels formed by the Islamist-controlled parliament, saying the panels are packed with Islamists and voicing fears that Egypt's new constitution would end up more Islamic.
However, two days before the June 16-17 presidential runoff, the ruling council dissolved parliament after a court determined that the parliamentary elections were illegal. As polls closed on June 17, the SCAF issued a declaration of constitutional amendments that gave the ruling military legislative power and control over the process of drafting the constitution.
They also declared a new body, The National Defense Council, dominated by generals with a wide mandate to decide security, military and foreign affairs.
Hossam Bahgat, a human-rights activist and head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the court decision Tuesday gives Morsi and other mediators ammunition in their battle with the ruling generals to argue that the decisions to entrench military power are unlawful and can be challenged. Bahgat said the military decisions started as a "power grab and effectively transformed into a military coup."
"Today is the first time we get the judiciary pushing against one of the three pillars of this coup," he said. "Today's decision should and could empower the president to explain in the clearest terms that what the (generals) are asking for is against the law."
There are other pending court cases against all the military's recent decisions.
But on Tuesday, Morsi also suffered a setback in his power struggle with the military. Attempts to reverse some of the military council's decrees were stalled after the Cairo Administrative Court postponed a ruling to July 7 on the legality of dissolving the 498-member parliament.
The case was brought by lawmakers.
In the absence of a parliament, Morsi must take his oath of office before the Constitutional Court, which was behind the ruling that recommended dissolving the Brotherhood-led parliament.
If Morsi takes the oath in front of the court, it will undermine him in the eyes of many, especially those who staged a sit-in for a week in Cairo's Tahrir Square against the military's power grab.
Morsi, according to his spokesman Yasser Ali, has been meeting with legal and constitutional experts to try to resolve the swearing in dilemma.
Also on Tuesday, the same court postponed to Sept. 1 an appeal that sought to disband a 100-member panel appointed by parliament to draft a new constitution. That left the panel and the constitution drafting process in limbo.