CAIRO — A power struggle between Egypt’s Islamist president and the country’s generals and judges intensified Tuesday, as a three-day battle for authority threatened to eclipse progress toward a democratic transition.
The day’s events included a brief parliamentary session called by President Mohamed Morsi’s political party, in defiance of a military warning. After the largely symbolic meeting, the country’s highest court ruled that Morsi did not have the right to reconstitute the body, which was dissolved by the generals after an earlier court decision.
The dispute threatened to complicate a planned visit to Cairo on Saturday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Speaking in Vietnam on Tuesday, Clinton urged “intensive dialogue” between Morsi and the military to avoid derailing progress in Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Morsi’s move to convene parliament also appeared to widen political fault lines. It triggered sharp rebukes from judges and liberal politicians, including some members of parliament, who accused him of overreaching.
The decision to call the dissolved parliament back into session marked a bold gamble by Morsi, who was propelled into office by the Muslim Brotherhood’s prodigious political machine. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party held nearly half of the seats in parliament.
But Tuesday’s developments also highlighted the pitfalls the president is likely to face as he asserts himself as a statesman with limited powers and strained relations with the secular chiefs of the armed forces and members of a judiciary who were appointed by his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, the autocrat who led Egypt for three decades.
Sharp warnings from the military and the courts had raised the prospect that a reconvening of parliament could prompt a violent confrontation between lawmakers and security forces deployed outside the building. But members of parliament arrived more than an hour before the scheduled time and faced no resistance as they walked into the building.
The only item on the agenda was a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court last month that found that one-third of legislators had been elected unlawfully. The decision prompted the then-ruling military generals to disband parliament and call for new elections.
Parliament Speaker Mohamed Saad Katatny, of the Freedom and Justice Party, said he would refer the court ruling to an appeals panel for review. He did not schedule additional sessions, nor did he suggest that parliament would seek to legislate while the dispute remains unsettled.
Momen Zarour, a lawmaker from the Freedom and Justice Party, said the brief meeting served notice that Egypt’s new political leaders will not be intimidated.
“We had to hold a session today, and we will hold more sessions next week,” said Zarour after rising from midday prayers with several dozen protesters on the sidewalk outside the gates of the building. “This is the first democratically elected parliament that Egypt has had in its history.”
Zarour said that during the session, lawmakers affirmed their respect for the constitutional court and even the ruling that invalidated one-third of parliament’s members. But they rejected the subsequent decision by Egypt’s military council, which had ruled the country since Mubarak’s ouster last year, to dissolve the entire legislative body.
“We salute the court. We honor its ruling,” Zarour said. “But the army cannot remove every member of parliament. We are appealing that now.”
Independent lawmaker Mostafa Bakri was among the lawmakers who boycotted the session. He issued a statement later resigning from his post and calling the Muslim Brotherhood’s move “political thuggery.”
The head of a prominent association of Egyptian judges also lashed out at Morsi. At a fiery news conference Monday, he gave the president 36 hours to pull back his decree to reinstate the Islamist-led parliament or face the prospect of a judicial strike.
But in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of last year’s revolution, Brotherhood supporters held a jubilant rally after sundown to celebrate the reconvening of parliament.
“Down, down with military rule,” said Mona Dawoud, a Brotherhood supporter draped in black from head to toe. “This decree is the first step to breaking military rule.”
Although Morsi’s decree and the parliamentary session appeared to delight his followers, it also threatened to tarnish the image of a unifying president that the conservative Islamist had sought to project since assuming office. Experts and politicians said the sides are likely to cool off until further court rulings on the dispute are issued.
“A lot of this depends on where people perceive power to be,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation in New York. “You could see this cutting a number of ways.”
During a short news conference in Vietnam, Clinton called for “a concerted effort on the part of all to deal with the problems that are understandable but have to be resolved.”
Clinton expects to meet with Morsi as part of an attempt to reset relations between Washington and Cairo after the turbulent 17-month military rule during which the longtime alliance became badly frayed. The United States hopes to help jump-start Egypt’s economy by beginning to release unspent aid earmarked for the country and helping it secure loans it will need to offset the hemorrhaging of its foreign reserves.
Hussein Gohar, a founding member of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said many Egyptians were taken off guard by how quickly Morsi chose to pick a fight. Gohar said that by holding only a brief session, the Brotherhood saved face with its supporters and averted a nastier confrontation with the courts and the generals. But one thing is clear, he added: This is the beginning of a protracted fight.
“Everyone is asking who has the real power in their hands, the Muslim Brotherhood or SCAF,” he said, referring to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. “For now, it’s going to be guesswork. Your guess is as good as mine.”
Stephanie McCrummen in Hanoi contributed to this report.