CAIRO — The faceoff between Egypt's new Islamist president and the old guard military sharpened Tuesday, with parliament defying orders to disband and the highest court slapping back at Mohammed Morsi in what has become an early glimpse into how he may flex his power.
Morsi's rapid-fire moves against Egypt's entrenched institutions show he is willing to push back against the establishment left over from the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. But — so far at least — he and his Muslim Brotherhood allies have also displayed restraint and appear intent on avoiding a collision course during a sensitive transition period.
It could point to a complicated and protracted shake-out between Morsi and Egypt's security and judicial power centers, as all sides test the limits of their powers while the country awaits its post-Arab Spring constitution — not expected before the end of the year.
In place of an all-out confrontation, Egypt may be witnessing the new rules of political engagement being defined in a time of highly unclear guidelines: tough statements, conflicting orders and attempts to push the envelope but not tear it up.
“One of them came through the ballot box and the other is trying to monopolize power,” Gamal Eid, a prominent rights lawyer said of Morsi and the generals.
Already, Morsi has shown the ability to multi-task his political messages and end up somewhere in the middle.
During the campaign, he catered to hard-line Islamists with calls to strengthen Shariah law and celebrated his deep allegiance to the Brotherhood, long banned under Mubarak's Western-backed regime. But he also portrayed himself as a son of the Arab Spring, appearing with women without head coverings.
The brief session by the Morsi-backed parliament — lasting just five minutes — appeared to show the same tactics of both defiance and caution.
Lawmakers convened despite the house being ordered dissolved by the military after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled on apparent election irregularities. But the speaker, Saad el-Katatni, sought to fend off charges that the Islamist-led chamber was contemptuous of the judiciary.
He told lawmakers the session was held only to find a way to examine the court's June 14 ruling and won backing to seek an appellate “second opinion.”
Later, the high court struck back against Morsi, saying his decision to recall parliament lacked any legal basis.
The president carefully avoided criticism of the court's ruling in his order Sunday to reconvene parliament. Instead, he restricted himself to revoking the military order that disbanded the chamber — in effect picking the easier target because of widespread public frustration with the military's lingering influence over the country since Mubarak's fall.
But in taking on the military, Morsi has also picked a still formidable foe with massive resources and powerful allies in the media.
The military brass has been Egypt's de facto ruler since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup. With conscription of males in force since the 1960s and four wars against Israel between 1948 and 1973, there is hardly an Egyptian family without at least one member in active service or with military experience.
“The best strategy for Morsi now might be to avoid confrontational policies and begin to slowly create a power base for himself in the higher circles of the country's body politic,” said Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert from St. John's University in New York. “For now, a confrontation may not only stall political transition in Egypt, but could also lead to Morsi's removal from office.”