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All sides jockey for power as Egypt braces for political showdown

As Egypt awaited the official results of its first free presidential election, the country appeared Monday to be entering a prolonged period of instability as the various bodies of government – the ruling military council, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Parliament and the assembly charged with writing a new constitution – competed for governing power.

The speaker of Parliament, Mohamed Saad el Katatni, announced that he would convene a session of the legislative body on Tuesday in defiance of the military council’s decree that it was dissolved, potentially setting the stage for a showdown in front of the building.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate, Mohammed Morsi, claimed early Monday to have won the weekend’s close runoff vote for president, dismissed as invalid the military council’s amendments to the constitution that limited presidential powers. The council also asserted that its powers extended to writing laws, yet a constitutional assembly named last week to draft a new constitution met on Monday anyway, inside the chambers of the dissolved Parliament.

Ahmed Shafik, Morsi’s presidential rival and former President Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, rejected claims that he had lost the election, saying he would file a formal appeal on Tuesday. The official election commission is expected to issue its tally on Wednesday.

Amid all the jockeying for position – and a growing chorus of Egyptians decrying the generals’ moves as tantamount to a counterrevolution against the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak – the military council held a rare press conference, where it asked the public to trust that it was only interested in preserving Egypt’s security. Maj. Gen. Mohammed al Assar vowed that the council would hand over power July 1, when the new president is to be sworn in.

“With complete authority, with all due respect, and he will be the head of state, there is no doubt about that,” al Assar told reporters.

Yet under the terms of the temporary constitution, the military council will still hold much of the nation’s governing power for at least four months afterward, while the constitutional assembly writes a new charter and new parliamentary elections are held.

As Egyptians prepared to go to the polls last week, a series of court rulings and decrees by the military council, which has ruled Egypt since Mubarak’s ouster 16 months ago, set in motion the debate of which entity had what powers. No side seems to agree on what is legal, and each governing branch is looking for interpretations that bolster its own interests.

Just as the polls closed Sunday, the military council issued amendments to the temporary constitution that greatly enhanced its already near-total power in the executive branch. It redefined the powers of the president, giving itself the final say over all military matters. Under the change, the president can’t declare war without the military council’s approval, and the council itself will decide its commanders – and when they must retire.

In the absence of a Parliament, the new president will take the oath of office before the Supreme Constitutional Court, which consists of Mubarak appointees.

The military council already had garnered newfound powers over another branch of government days earlier when the constitutional court said members of Parliament had been elected illegally, leading to Parliament’s dissolution, and leaving the military as the last remaining government institution to fill its place.

In Washington, which provides Egypt’s military and civilian government with billions of dollars in aid, officials said they were “deeply concerned” about the military’s moves. While officials said that all aspects of U.S.-Egyptian relations could be affected if the generals prolonged their grip on power, and amid calls by some in Congress to review U.S. military aid to Egypt, there were no signs that the Obama administration was considering cutting the contributions.

“I think every conversation we’ve had (with the military council) has been very clear about their willingness to see a smooth transition . . . their willingness to work themselves out of a job," said Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.

Al Assar, the council spokesman, said repeatedly at the news conference that the military was disappointed in the constitutional court’s ruling that made it the de facto parliament, because it undid a major accomplishment of the post-Mubarak era, a free legislative election. He argued that the council had no choice but to create a system of checks and balances. However, under the amended constitution, the checks only go one way, with the council controlling decisions over major matters while the new president wouldn’t have decision-making power over the military leadership or budget.

As if trying to defuse the charges that are being leveled against the council all over Egypt, al Assar said, “We need more trust. There are a lot of claims against (the council). Let’s stop saying we are state within a state. That is not true.”

That argument did not resonate on the street or with the Muslim Brotherhood, which held 47 percent of the parliamentary seats. The court’s ruling “could be applied without dissolving the rest of Parliament,” the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party said in a statement.

In Tahrir Square, where thousands gathered either to celebrate Morsi’s apparent victory or to express outrage, the language used to describe the generals was vitriolic.

“I am staying here every day until we see the military going back to their barracks and leaving the job to someone who will represent us, not represent Mubarak and his government,” said Ashraf Ali, 45, a chemistry teacher and Morsi supporter. The generals “should be ashamed of themselves. Don’t they read the papers to see what people say about them?”

Matthew Schofield in Washington and McClatchy special correspondents Mohannad Sabry and Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed.

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