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Egypt grants military wide arrest powers on eve of controversial ruling

Egypt’s Justice Ministry warned Wednesday that the military has broad powers to arrest civilians in what appeared to be preparations for potential protests ahead of two critical court decisions expected Thursday.

The announcement was the first such warning issued since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak 16 months ago and came one day before Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court is expected to issue rulings that could abruptly dissolve Egypt’s first democratically elected Parliament and cancel this weekend’s scheduled presidential runoff election.

Some interpreted the decree as foreshadowing the military’s plan to extend its rule past July 1, when the new president is supposed to take over. Others said they believed that Egypt was now under martial law and that the announcement represented a continuation of Egypt’s emergency law, which had expired May 31.

Under Wednesday’s announcement, the military will have broad powers to detain people until the government agrees on a new constitution, which will take at least six months.

The military seemed to be preparing for a possibly adverse reaction to Thursday’s rulings. Armored tanks and vehicles were arrayed outside the Constitutional Court building Wednesday night and protesters were heading toward the building in anticipation of the rulings, which were expected mid-morning in Cairo.

In one of the cases, the court is considering the validity of a law passed earlier this year that banned former members of the Mubarak government from running in the presidential election. If the law is upheld, the ruling would eliminate Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, from the runoff and force Egypt to hold a new presidential vote.

But Egyptian law bars Parliament from passing laws that target specific individuals who haven’t been convicted of crimes, and the court must decide if Parliament’s ban was aimed specifically at halting Shafik’s candidacy and that of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who at the time had also registered as a candidate.

The court is also expected to rule on whether Parliament itself is legally constituted. At issue is whether the Muslim Brotherhood violated the current Egyptian constitution by encouraging its best known members to run as independents, while fielding a slate of candidates who ran under the banner of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Under the constitution, two-thirds of Parliament’s members must be affiliated with a party and one third must be unaffiliated independents. But critics say the Brotherhood stacked Parliament by pressing some of its members to declare themselves as independent candidates.

The timing of the court’s decisions is particularly precarious. Egyptians are scheduled to head to the polls this weekend to vote between Shafik and Mohammed Morsi, who represents the Brotherhood. Adding to the tension is the fact that the court’s justices were all appointed by Mubarak, raising concerns that their decision will be politically driven.

New elections would threaten the gains of the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates Parliament and could win the presidency. Some political groups whose candidates lost in the first round of the presidential elections have delayed endorsing either candidate in the runoff to see what the court decides. Those endorsements, if they come after the ruling, could decide the runoff’s outcome.

The use of the courts as a means to solve political disputes is not new in Egypt. In 1984 and 1987, the courts dissolved Parliament for constitutional violations.

Legal observers here debated whether Parliament might knowingly have passed the law banning former Mubarak officials from running, aware of its unconstitutionality but hoping the court would not rule on its validity so quickly.

“A lot of laws passed are unconstitutional. They thought the ruling would take years,” said Khaled el-Sarganey, a columnist at the state-owned al Ahram newspaper.

But Sobhy Salah, a Muslim Brotherhood member of the legislative and constitutional committee in Parliament, denied such claims, saying the parliament never targeted individuals. He said “the law was not issued against certain people, but against certain posts who were leaders in the executive branch of the country.”

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this story.

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