CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Wednesday ordered the suspension of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April, opening a legal battle likely to delay the vote and deepening the political crisis between the Islamist president and his opponents that has polarized the nation for months.
The new confusion surrounding the election underlined the paralysis gripping Egypt, between political deadlock, infighting among state institutions, a faltering economy and a wave of protests, strikes and clashes against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that has spiraled for months around the country.
In the Suez Canal city of Port Said, scene of heavy clashes between protesters and police that have left six dead since Sunday, the violence entered a fourth day, dragging in the military. Protesters hurled stones at police firing tear gas, as army troops struggled to keep the two sides apart.
Morsi's Islamist supporters and some in the public exhausted by the turmoil have viewed the parliamentary elections as a step toward bringing some stability, accusing the opposition of stirring up unrest to derail the voting. But the mainly liberal and secular opposition had called a boycott of the vote, saying Morsi must first find some political consensus and ease the wave of popular anger. Whether or not the opposition boycotts, the Islamists would likely win a parliamentary majority.
The new court ruling is unlikely to defuse the tension, bringing the dispute into the judiciary, which has repeatedly been used by the various sides in Egypt's political battles.
The Cairo administrative court ruled that the Islamist-dominated parliament had improperly pushed through a law organizing the elections without allowing the Supreme Constitutional Court to review it to ensure it conforms with the constitution. The court ordered the law referred to the constitutional court and the election suspended in the meantime. The court annulled a decree by Morsi calling the election.
Morsi's opponents quickly pointed to the ruling as further proof of their accusations that Morsi and his ruling Muslim Brotherhood are mismanaging the country, trying to dominate power without reaching consensus with others or abiding by the law.
"The mess continues courtesy of epic failure of governance," prominent opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei said in a Tweet. He added a jab that ignoring the rule of law "is characteristic of a fascist state."
Morsi's legal adviser, Mohammed Fouad Gadallah, told The Associated Press that the government will respect the court decision to suspend the election and refer the law the constitutional court.
In the meantime, authorities will delay the opening of the application period for candidates, which had been due to start Saturday, Gadallah said. That could push back the entire election process. The multi-phase election was supposed to begin in April 22 and last for nearly two months.
Gadallah also said the state would appeal the administrative court ruling. The aim of the appeal would be to establish the right of the president to call the elections, which the court called into question by annulling the decree.
The president's office later put out a statement saying it supports the rule of law and respects the court ruling, but it made no mention of an appeal.
The opposition had opposed the election law, expressing concerns over gerrymandering by the Brotherhood, which dominates the parliament, and complaining it was not consulted before it was drafted.
In its ruling on Wednesday, the administrative court said parliament had not observed the right of the constitutional court to review the election law, including any revisions in it, to ensure it conforms to the constitution. When the judge read the verdict, lawyers in the court room broke out in chants of "God is great."
"We are regaining the state back," a voice in the room called out, a reference to accusations that Morsi had previously defied the judiciary.
Egypt's political crisis has been mired in various judicial disputes, including an outcry among the opposition following Morsi's decision last November to grant himself immunity from the judiciary's supervision. He later revoked this right, in the face of massive protests, but he had already used the powers to appoint a new chief prosecutor and prevent the courts from blocking Islamists drafting a new constitution.
At the heart of the election dispute is a loosely worded article in the newly adopted constitution that prevents the constitutional court from reviewing election laws after parliament passes them. The administrative court appeared to be arguing that the article means parliament must consult the constitutional court before passing the law.
Initially, parliament sent the draft bill to the constitutional court, which rejected it, asking lawmakers to amend nearly a dozen articles, including the drawing of districts. After some quick revisions, the parliament passed the law without going back to the court to ensure the final version met its recommendations.
Bahey Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, said the dispute over the election "adds, for the tenth time, a new element of uncertainty for Egypt's future steps."
"Regardless of whether the elections are held or not, Egypt appears to be heading toward more chaos," he said.
Protests and violent clashes have spread in recent days in Cairo, Port Said and other provinces, and increasingly the rage has been directed at the police. Many protesters say the security forces have been using excessive force against them and that Morsi has backed them in their abuses.
Violence in Port Said, at the Mediterranean end of the Suez Canal, has left three civilians and three policemen dead and hundreds injured since Sunday. Army troops have repeatedly gotten caught in the middle as they try to keep the two sides apart -- dragging the military into the conflict to an extent unprecedented since the army handed over power to Egypt's first democratically elected president in June.
On Wednesday, troops moved to clear a sit-in that protesters have been holding in front of the city's main government complex for weeks. Soldiers took down tents, banners and pictures of civilians recently killed in clashes with police. The military police opened the area to traffic for the first time in weeks.
Nevertheless, clashes erupted, with protesters hurling stones at police at the nearby security headquarters, prompting volleys of tear in response. Troops lined up between them, but fighting continued. "Morsi is the enemy of God," protesters lined up in front of the troops chanted.
Furious at the president and the security forces, residents of Port Said have been waging campaign of protests and strikes amounting to an outright revolt against the central government.
The turmoil began Jan. 26, after a Cairo court issued death sentences against 21 defendants -- mostly Port Said residents -- for involvement in a deadly soccer riot in the city in February 2012 that killed 74 people, mostly fans of a rival Cairo soccer club, Al-Ahly. Many in the city saw the verdicts as politicized.
Violent protests over the verdicts killed more than 40 people, mostly at the hands of police.
Clashes erupted again on Sunday after word emerged that the defendants in the court case were removed from a city prison, ahead of a Saturday court session, in which the death sentences are to be confirmed, and new verdicts in the soccer case to be announced, including against police officers.
Many fear that violence could on Saturday after the verdict.
Cairo has already been struck by a wave of protests by soccer fans of Al-Ahly club directed at the police also ahead of the verdict, where they held a rally outside a main security headquarters and set a security vehicle on fire. Hundreds of others clashed for a fourth straight day with police near the U.S. Embassy and other diplomatic missions near Tahrir Square.