CAIRO – Egypt's newly elected parliament could be dissolved, the presidential election may have to be abandoned and the country's new constitution has yet to be drafted.
Sixteen months after Hosni Mubarak was swept out of office by a popular uprising, Egypt's political future is tangled in a thick web of court cases and bitter public squabbles. How everything is straightened out will be the difference between an end to military rule by July 1 as scheduled or a return to square one of a turbulent transition, a prospect that is certain to unleash a fresh wave of turmoil and bloodshed.
"Court decisions will raise a million questions. What we are seeing now is political messiness," said Sobhi Saleh, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist group that stands to lose the most if parliament is dissolved and a Mubarak-era prime minister is confirmed as the one going head-to-head against its uninspiring candidate in a presidential runoff vote.
The vexing mix of politics and law comes less than two weeks ahead of the presidential vote between Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, and the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi on June 16-17. A winner will be declared June 21. Morsi and Shafiq were the top vote-getters in a field of 13 candidates from the first round of voting last month. Already, Egyptians living abroad have started voting in the runoff.
However a growing number of activists are embracing calls for cancelling the entire election, despairing of the prospect of either the Brotherhood or a diehard of the old regime ruling the country. Mohamed ElBaradei, the nation's top reform leader, is one of them.
"Egyptians are not ready for elections when they are divided," the Nobel Peace Laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog told reporters on Tuesday. "Elections should be the final stage of democracy, which we don't yet have."
Only two days before the election, the Supreme Constitutional Court will consider two cases that could potentially throw everything topsy-turvy once again.
In one, it is reviewing a lower court's ruling that the law organizing parliamentary elections late last year was unconstitutional. If the court agrees, the current legislature — where the Brotherhood is the biggest party with nearly half the seats — would be disbanded and Egyptians would have to go back to the polls to choose a new one.
The other case is whether Shafiq can stay in the race or not. The court is to rule on the validity of a "political exclusion" law passed by parliament banning many former regime figures from running for office. If it backs the law, Shafiq would have to drop out and the presidential election might have to start all over again from scratch. Thousands of protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square every day this week demand the law be enacted to exclude Shafiq.
Egypt's transition to democratic rule has been tempestuous since army generals, led by Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, took over from the ousted leader in February last year. The country has taken one bad hit after another: deadly protests, a sliding economy, crime surge and alleged rights abuses by the military.
Adding another layer to the uncertainties is the 84-year-old Mubarak's sharply deteriorating health after his sentencing last week to life in prison along with his ex-security chief.
Security officials at Torah Prison, where Mubarak is held, said the former president was suffering from high blood pressure, breathing problems and depression. He had to be given oxygen throughout the night and until Thursday morning, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Mubarak had been held in military hospitals from the time of his arrest in April last year up until his sentencing.
The security officials said doctors treating Mubarak were debating whether to transfer him to a better equipped hospital outside the penal system, a move that would be seen by critics as another example of the generals showing favoritism to their former mentor.
One sign of political progress came Thursday when the generals and 22 political parties, including the Brotherhood's, agreed on how to select the 100-member panel to draw up a new constitution, resolving a three-month deadlock on the issue.
On Tuesday, the military had threatened to issue its own blueprint for the panel unless an agreement was reached within 48-hours — a step that would have further inflamed accusations the generals are trying to dominate the process.
Earlier in the year, the parliament selected a panel that was overwhelmingly made up of Brotherhood members and other Islamists, who together make up 70 percent of the legislature. That prompted a walk-out by the few liberals and secular figures on the body, and a court ruling disbanded the panel.
Under Thursday's agreement, Islamists will only take half of the panel's seats, according to Mohammed Aboul Ghar, head of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party. Just over a third of its members would come from parliament, while the rest would be legal experts and representatives of unions, ministries and religious institutions, including the Coptic Church.
Constitutional articles would only be accepted by a 67 percent supermajority vote, preventing Islamists from pushing though anything unilaterally.
Court rulings have since the ouster of Mubarak in February last year made significant contributions to the nation's reshaping after 29 years of authoritarian rule. Along with the disbanding of the constitutional panel, courts dissolved Mubarak's ruling party, reversed the privatization of several state-owned enterprises and convicted and sent to jail members of the coteries of businessmen linked to the regime and who supported Mubarak's succession by his son Gamal.
The cases to be heard on June 14 by the Supreme Constitutional Court could even more heavily shake the transition.
According to leaks in the Egyptian media Thursday, a body of legal experts recommended to the court that it rule the law governing parliamentary elections was illegal — meaning a new election would have to be held. The issue lies in the argument that it was unfair for the law to allow parties to run candidates in the third of the seats set aside for independent candidates. The other two-thirds of the seats were earmarked for party lists.
The same expert body recommended to the court that it rule the "political exclusion" law unconstitutional, meaning Shafiq can still run for president.
The court is not required to follow the experts' recommendations.
After parliament passed the law, the election commission referred it to the constitutional court, allowing Shafiq to stay in the race while the tribunal looked into it.
Legal expert Mohammed Hassanein Abdel-Al said another option for the court is to rule that the election commission acted improperly when it referred the law for a ruling, in which case Shafiq could be thrown out of the race.
"It is very hard to predict what the judge would do," said Abdel-Al, who lectures on constitutional law at Cairo University. "There are no precedents related to the exclusion law."