CAIRO — An Egyptian appeals court on Wednesday annulled a presidential decree appointing the top prosecutor in a new challenge by the judiciary to Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that throws the country's legal system into confusion.
The unprecedented verdict against the decree, which Morsi issued in November, brought to the surface how Egypt's stormy post-revolution transition has profoundly snarled the lines of authority and law, leaving unclear the boundaries between powers of the president and the judiciary and who has the ultimate say in interpreting a deeply disputed constitution.
It also opens a new phase in the political fight between Morsi and his Islamist backers on one side and his mainly liberal and secular opponents on the other, a fight into which the judiciary has repeatedly been dragged in the past year.
Morsi supporters say the judiciary remains in the control of supporters of the regime of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, warning that they are seeking to derail the country's democratic transition and undermine the president's authority.
Morsi's opponents say the elected president has continuously defied legal norms to force through his agenda and trampled on the judiciary's independence in a bid to consolidate his power. The courts are the sole branch of government not under the dominance of Morsi's Islamist allies, although he does have some backers.
Most legal experts argued that the decision is effective immediately and that the top prosecutor must be removed. If not, the current prosecutor has no powers to issue arrest warrants or refer cases to court, bringing the country's legal system to a halt, said constitutional law professor Mohammed Hassanein Abdel-Al.
"It is unprecedented in the history of Egypt to question the legitimacy of the top prosecutor," Abdel-Al said. "The president must correct the course."
In a brief statement, the presidency said that it is waiting for the court to issue its reasons for the ruling before taking a decision. But Morsi's supporters insisted the verdict violates the constitution and is likely to be shot down on appeal.
"This is an invalid ruling. It violates the constitution," said Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, the legal adviser of the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Morsi hails.
The dispute is rooted in a series of controversial decrees Morsi issued in November that sparked widespread protests. In them, he decreed that the prosecutor general could serve in office for only four years, with immediate effect on the post's holder at the time, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, who was in place since 2006. Morsi replaced Mahmoud with Talaat Abdullah, a career judge, and swiftly swore him in.
At the same time, Morsi decreed that the judiciary could not reverse his decisions. The decrees were largely aimed at preventing the courts from blocking the drafting a new constitution by a body dominated by Morsi's allies. The Islamist-backed charter was then rushed through a public referendum in December.
Many Egyptians, including revolutionary activists, had wanted Mahmoud's ouster, since he was seen as a diehard supporter of Mubarak. But Morsi's decrees and his unilateral naming of a replacement prompted public outrage and criticism, including by many in the judiciary, that he was neutralizing the courts in a power grab. Morsi later lifted the decrees, but their results remained in place.
The question remained unresolved over which has precedence – Morsi's decrees or rulings by the courts.
Wednesday's ruling deepens the dispute over this question.
The Cairo appeals court, a unit specializing in complaints by judges and lawyers, ruled in a case filed by the sacked prosecutor, Mahmoud. It said that Morsi's decree appointing Abdullah "is considered void and all that came of it."
A member of the court, Mohsen el-Baz, told the Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr TV station that the ruling found that Abdullah's appointment violated laws requiring that the country's top judicial body, the Supreme Judicial Council, approve the choice.
He said the ruling means the sacked prosecutor general, Mahmoud, is to return to his job, but added the verdict could be appealed within two months to Egypt's highest court, the Court of Cassation.
A top aide to Abdullah, Hassan Yassin, told the Turkish Anadolu news agency that the top prosecutor will remain in his post, protected by the constitution, which sets his term at four years. Yassin said Wednesday's verdict was "full of loopholes" and will be appealed.
Abdel-Al, the constitutional scholar, said the verdict calls into question all decisions Abdullah has taken or takes subsequently and could put courts and police on hold in terms of implementing prosecution decisions. Abdullah has been sharply criticized by Morsi opponents who say he is beholden to the president, particularly after he ordered the arrest of five prominent anti-Morsi activists following recent violent protests.
Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, told The Associated Press that Abdullah's orders to police remain in effect.
The judiciary and the Islamists have clashed repeatedly, starting with a court ruling last year that annulled parliamentary elections and dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament. Earlier this month, the Cairo administrative court ordered the suspension of elections for a new parliament that Morsi had called for April, ruling that the election law drawn up by Morsi's allies must be reviewed by the Constitutional Court.
State lawyers are appealing the ruling, arguing that it is Morsi's "sovereign powers" to call for elections.
Similarly, courts were considering last year whether to dissolve the panel writing the constitution, until they were blocked by Morsi's decrees. The opposition still considers the charter that emerged and was approved in a low-turnout referendum to be invalid.
The new dispute reflects a "huge amount of confusion in the legal and judicial systems because of the continued recklessness with the constitution and court rulings," said Bahy Eddin Hassan, the head of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
"With the conflict and sharp polarization in Egypt since the adoption of a disputed constitution, I can't rule out politicizing anything in Egypt, including the judiciary and the prosecution," he said.
The fight could go to the Supreme Constitutional Court where Morsi's supporters are likely to argue that the new charter protects the effects of his decrees, including the appointment of Abdullah.
Gamal Eid, a rights lawyer, said ultimately the tug of war is a "political dispute."
"This is not really a legal matter as much as it is a political issue," Eid said. "It represents an embarrassment to Morsi ... and raises the issue of respecting court rulings."