CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's Islamist president fired the first volley in his war with the powerful generals on Sunday, calling on the Islamist-dominated parliament to reconvene in defiance of a military decree dissolving the legislature on the basis of a ruling by the country's highest court.
A week into his presidency, Mohammed Morsi's decree could plunge the country into a new bout of instability, and possible violence, nearly 17 months after the ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak by a popular uprising and the start of a transition period defined more by turmoil than the freedom that followed some 30 years of authoritarian rule.
His decree also called for new parliamentary elections to be held within 60 days of the adoption of a new constitution for the country, which is not expected before late this year.
In the first sign of an imminent crisis, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the formal name of the body grouping the nation's top generals, held an "emergency meeting" shortly after Morsi's decree was announced by the official news agency.
The generals, said the agency, met to "review and discuss the consequences" of Morsi's decision. In a separate report, the Supreme Constitutional Court, the tribunal that dissolved the legislature last month, will meet on Monday to discuss Morsi's decision.
The court ruling said a third of the legislature's members were illegally elected, but only ordered its dissolution in the verdict's legal citation. Acting on the court's ruling, the generals decreed the dissolution of parliament last month, angering the Brotherhood and poisoning the atmosphere ahead of the military's handover of power to Morsi on June 30.
The basis of the ruling is that political parties breached the principle of equality by fielding candidates to run for the third of the chamber's seats set aside for independents.
The text of Morsi's decree made no mention of the Supreme Constitutional Court's ruling, saying it was revoking the military's own decree to disband the legislature. The military decree came when the generals were in power, acting as a collective presidency.
Morsi is a conservative Islamist and a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group. The fundamentalist group won nearly half of parliament's seats when elections were held some seven months ago.
The dissolution of parliament came as a severe blow to the Brotherhood which has dreamt of political power for most of the 84 years since its inception. Its imminent clash with the military evokes memories of the 1950s and 1960s when the government at the time jailed the group's leaders along with hundreds of its supporters. Mubarak also cracked down on the group throughout most of his 29 years in power.
Brotherhood leaders welcomed Morsi's decision, but the country's leading pro-reform campaigner, Nobel peace Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, himself a longtime critic of the military, said it undermined the country's judicial authority.
The president's decree, he wrote on his Twitter account, "ushered Egypt into a constitutional coma and a conflict between the state's branches."
The move also reflects confusion in the roles and powers of Egypt's governing institutions, with the constitution in force under Mubarak suspended after the uprising and no new one yet adopted.
The military announced a "constitutional declaration" last month that gave it legislative powers in the absence of parliament and stripped Morsi of much of his presidential authority. It also gave the generals control over the process of drafting a new constitution and immunity from any civilian oversight. It also gave itself control of the national budget.
Morsi came to power after narrowly defeating Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, in a June 16-17 runoff. He was declared the winner on June 24. He symbolically took the oath of office five days later at Tahrir Square, birthplace of the revolt that toppled Mubarak's regime on Feb. 11, 2011.
He took the formal oath the next day before the Supreme Constitutional Court and again during a later speech at Cairo University before hundreds of his supporters, including many of the dissolved legislature's lawmakers.
He has hinted of his displeasure over the dissolution of parliament and the diminished powers of his office in the three speeches he gave on his inauguration day and his aides pointedly seated the chamber's speaker, Saad el-Katatni of the Brotherhood, in the front row during the Cairo University ceremony.
An administrative court is shortly expected to rule on the fate of parliament's upper chamber, the largely toothless Shura Council, which is also dominated by the Brotherhood. The upper chamber was also elected under the law the constitutional court ruled as illegal.
Morsi may have made his move inspired in large part by a desire to assert his authority in the face of the military, which has been the country's de facto ruler since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy. But Morsi's indirect defiance of a ruling by the country's highest court could backfire, leading to charges that he has no respect for the judiciary.
Morsi's decree came only hours after he met with a senior U.S. official who gave him a message from President Barack Obama that assured him of America's commitment to a "new partnership" with Egypt. Obama also invited Morsi for talks in the White House in September, according to Egypt's state television.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told reporters after the meeting that Egyptians could rely on U.S. support as they try to realize their aspirations.
"Egyptians know far better than we do that their aspirations are not yet fully realized, but they can count on America's partnership on the complicated road ahead," Burns said.
Washington, he said, was looking to see a democratically elected parliament in Egypt, a constitution that protects "universal rights" and an inclusive government that "embraces all of Egypt's faiths and respects the rights of women and secular members of society."
Burns is the highest ranking U.S. official to meet Morsi since he succeeded Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally whose regime was toppled in a popular uprising last year.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's is also due to travel to Egypt later this month.