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Egyptian court ruling raises stakes in presidential race

The court suspended the assembly chosen to write Egypt's new constitution, delaying the process until after elections. That means the new president will initially have near-dictatorial powers.

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In this April 5 photo, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for the presidency Khairat el-Shater leaves the Higher Presidential Elections Commission after submitting his candidacy papers, in Cairo.

Amr Nabil/AP

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An Egyptian court yesterday suspended the body chosen to write Egypt’s new constitution, upending the country's timetable for political transition – and perhaps much more.

It is now clear that Egypt's new constitution will not be finished before a new president is elected by June. That means the old constitution, which gives the president near-dictatorial powers, will still prevail when the military council that has ruled Egypt for the past year is replaced. That elevates the stakes of the presidential contest considerably, and comes as a warning to Islamists that they could still be sidelined.

The court’s decision is a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood, which ambitiously set out to dominate the constitution-writing process and vie for the presidency after winning nearly 50 percent of parliamentary seats in recent elections.

The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had been poised to write the constitution without liberal, leftist, and other members, who resigned in protest that the constitution-writing body was not representative of Egypt. Together, those who resigned had comprised nearly a third of the 100-seat body, known as the constituent assembly.

The court ruled that the Islamist-dominated parliament had acted improperly in naming parliamentarians to fill half the 100 seats of the constituent assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the largest parliamentary bloc, complained that "politics" had a hand in the judges' decision.

Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said the court’s decision could signal a move by the ruling military council to intervene in the democratic transition. Removing the military from a political role is one of the major challenges Egypt faces in the years ahead.

“That the administrative court would enter into such a political and ideological battle is not a good sign,” he said. He noted that there are two court cases pending to dissolve the parliament, a move that could throw the transition into chaos.

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