CAIRO — President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt on Sunday unexpectedly ordered the country's Islamist-led parliament to reconvene, challenging decisions by Egypt's most powerful generals and judges to dissolve the legislative body.
Morsi's decree appeared to be a bold effort to claim authority for his 10-day-old presidency, and it raised the specter of a new confrontation between the president and his Islamist supporters on the one hand, and the military council and Egypt's highest court on the other. The announcement sowed confusion in Cairo, not least over whether Morsi had the power to issue such a decree.
The speaker of the parliament said it would meet within "hours." Military officers, judges and political parties all announced emergency meetings. Beyond that, there was no immediate response from the military council, which took power in Egypt after former President Hosni Mubarak was forced from office last year.
Some analysts said it seemed likely that the army knew of Morsi's plans, while others found it hard to believe the generals would tolerate such an open challenge to their power. "The decree could create a political crisis," said Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights lawyer. "He has been waiting to make a decision to prove he is president of a republic."
The military council ordered parliament dissolved just before the presidential election last month, after a court ruled that the law under which it had been elected was partly unconstitutional. In the same stroke, the military assumed legislative power and severely limited the authority of the presidency, in what many likened to a coup aimed at curbing the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that held about half the seats in parliament.
When Morsi, the Brotherhood's candidate, won the presidency, many wondered whether he would directly confront the military council, known as the SCAF, or seek an accommodation, an approach the Brotherhood often seemed to favor. "This could be the early signs of a deal, or the early signs of a battle between the military council and the Brothers," said Ahmed Ragheb, a human rights lawyer. "Morsi used his powers as president, just like the military used its power as acting president before."
The announcement Sunday suggested Morsi was willing to stake his credibility on a challenge to the military's version of power sharing, which left the president's legislative agenda and even his budget dependent on the generals.
The decree "certainly amounts to a confrontation with the judiciary," said Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University. "It probably amounts to a very bold confrontation with the SCAF as well, though we don't know what understanding may have been reached there."
Morsi's decree comes with a time limit: Parliament is to serve only until a new constitution can be completed, followed by fresh legislative elections within 60 days. Brown and others suggested that this provision was intended to soften the blow to the military, if only slightly, by acknowledging the court's demand for a new parliament.
The wording of the decree left many questions unanswered. It was not clear whether the new election would replace the entire parliament, or just the members whose seats were most at issue in the court case, amounting to one-third of the total. Analysts also pointed out that any laws passed by the reconvened parliament could be vulnerable to strong legal challenges.
Sharp divisions emerged among the country's political factions Sunday as they reacted to the decree, hinting at a brewing crisis. Some hailed it as an audacious stroke to restore civilian power, while others faulted Morsi for setting a dangerous precedent by overruling Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court.
Members of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, were the most vocal supporters of the decree, while some members of liberal and leftist parties said they would not return to the assembly. Another coalition that included revolutionary youth groups said it supported the decree.
Much hinged on varying readings of Morsi's intentions. Some saw in the wording of the decree a narrow rebuke of the military and an overruling of a largely administrative order by the generals, rather than a broader challenge to the courts.
Eid, the human rights lawyer, called the decree "100 percent correct."
"It abolishes an executive order, and it is not related to the constitutional court," he said. "It negates the decision of the military council."
He added: "If the choice is between the decree of an elected president and a military council with questionable legitimacy, then we choose the elected president."
Others, though, saw it as an attack by Morsi on the judiciary, and an overreach in his drive to expand his powers. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat and a leading liberal politician, posted on Twitter that "the executive decision to overrule the constitutional court is turning Egypt from a government of law into a government of men."
The decree was the 11th issued by Morsi since he took office on June 30, and his second to challenge the remnants of Mubarak's authoritarian state. An earlier decree created a committee to investigate the killing and wounding of protesters in Egypt, beginning with the January 2011 uprising against Mubarak, a move that could threaten the state security agencies that are suspected in the killings.
Obama administration officials initially declined to comment on Morsi's decree. One official said it was likely that President Barack Obama would meet with the new Egyptian leader at the U.N. General Assembly session in New York in September.
The depth of Morsi's challenge to the military was difficult to gauge immediately. Late Sunday, the military council adjourned its meeting without making an announcement, and there were conflicting reports about how the generals viewed the decree.
Jihad el-Haddad, a Brotherhood spokesman, said he believed that Morsi had acted unilaterally, aided by a new team of legal specialists who are seeking to insulate the new president's directives from military interference. "They know what they're doing," said Haddad, who stressed that he did not speak for the president. "They are helping him meticulously draft laws so that they can be protected from the SCAF."
Anwar Sadat, a nephew of the former president and a member of the dissolved parliament, said the decision "was a surprise for everyone."
He said of Morsi and the military: "I don't think he could have taken that decision without consulting with them. If there was a consultation, there will be no confrontation."
Late Sunday, demonstrators gathered in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, just down the block from the shuttered parliament. Buoyed by Morsi's decree, the crowd shouted: "The people and the president are one hand."