Cairo - The faceoff between Egypt's new Islamist president and the old guard military sharpened on Tuesday, with parliament defying orders to disband and the highest court slapping back at Mohammed Morsi in what has become an early glimpse into how he may flex his power.
Morsi's rapid-fire moves against Egypt's entrenched institutions show he is willing to push back against the establishment left over from the era of deposed President Hosni Mubarak. But — so far at least — he and his Muslim Brotherhood allies have also displayed restraint and appear intent on avoiding a collision course during a sensitive transition period.
It could point to a complicated and protracted shake-out between Morsi and Egypt's security and judicial power centres, as all sides test the limits of their powers while the country awaits its post-Arab Spring constitution — not expected before the end of the year.
In place of an all-out confrontation, Egypt may be witnessing the new rules of political engagement being defined in a time of highly unclear guidelines: tough statements, conflicting orders and attempts to push the envelope but not tear it up.
"One of them came through the ballot box and the other is trying to monopolise power," Gamal Eid, a prominent rights lawyer said of Morsi and the generals.
Already, Morsi has shown the ability to multi-task his political messages and end up somewhere in the middle.
During the campaign, he catered to hard-line Islamists with calls to strengthen Shariah law and celebrated his deep allegiance to the Brotherhood, long banned under Mubarak's Western-backed regime. But he also portrayed himself as a son of the Arab Spring, appearing with women without head coverings.
Defiance and caution
The brief session by the Morsi-backed parliament — lasting just five minutes — appeared to show the same tactics of both defiance and caution.
Lawmakers convened despite the house being ordered dissolved by the military after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled on apparent election irregularities. But the speaker, Saad el-Katatni, sought to fend off charges that the Islamist-led chamber was contemptuous of the judiciary.
He told lawmakers the session was held only to find a way to examine the court's 14 June ruling and won backing to seek an appellate "second opinion".
Later, the high court struck back against Morsi, saying his decision to recall parliament lacked any legal basis.
The president carefully avoided criticism of the court's ruling in his order Sunday to reconvene parliament. Instead, he restricted himself to revoking the military order that disbanded the chamber — in effect picking the easier target because of widespread public frustration with the military's lingering influence over the country since Mubarak's fall.
But in taking on the military, Morsi has also picked a still formidable foe with massive resources and powerful allies in the media.
The military brass has been Egypt's de facto ruler since army officers seized power in a 1952 coup. With conscription of males in force since the 1960s and four wars against Israel between 1948 and 1973, there is hardly an Egyptian family without at least one member in active service or with military experience.
"The best strategy for Morsi now might be to avoid confrontational policies and begin to slowly create a power base for himself in the higher circles of the country's body politic," said Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert from St John's University in New York. "For now, a confrontation may not only stall political transition in Egypt, but could also lead to Morsi's removal from office."
Morsi can depend on the backing of a disciplined and efficient machine in the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group that won just under half of parliament's seats in the country's freest election in decades.
The Brotherhood, which has been banned by successive regimes during most of its 84 years, nevertheless has acquired an impressive record of mobilizing supporters.
On Tuesday, thousands of Brotherhood backers filled Cairo's Tahrir Square, cradle of last year's uprising. Some danced and sang, while many carried Morsi portraits. They greeted Tuesday's ruling against Morsi's decree with chants of "batel", or illegitimate.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is scheduled to visit Egypt this weekend, urged Morsi and the military to settle their differences in the spirit of the revolution.
"We urge that there be intensive dialogue among all of the stakeholders in order to ensure there is a clear path for them to be following and that the Egyptian people get what they protested for and what they voted for, which is a fully elected government making the decisions," she said during a trip to Vietnam.
But if Morsi wants to use the street to prevail in his fight with the military, he will need to show that he can draw support from beyond the Brotherhood's base — something that may prove tough.
Most of the youth groups behind last year's anti-Mubarak uprising are on the fence. As the Brotherhood and the military square off, their memories are still fresh of the Brotherhood abandoning them during deadly clashes with security forces last year.
At the time, the Brotherhood said it was focusing its energy on campaigning for parliamentary elections. Critics contended, however, that it did not want to anger the military by taking part in protests demanding the generals immediately step down.
Image of a strong president
"I personally want parliament to be reinstated, but a great deal of people I know want court rulings to be respected," said Ahmed Badawi, a liberal activist. "For now, Morsi has the active support of Islamists."
Possibly anticipating his fight with the military, Morsi used a series of high-profile speeches to win support outside the Muslim Brotherhood, mixing revolutionary rhetoric with dramatic gestures and signs of religious piety.
"I am a president for all Egyptians," he has said more than once in recent days in a bid to reassure liberals, women and minority Christians who fear he will inject more religion into government and push them to the sidelines.
Morsi has also been trying to project the image of a strong president who commands the respect of the powerful military. For the second consecutive day, he attended a military graduation ceremony on Tuesday.
Unlike his four military predecessors, Morsi is not the supreme commander of the armed forces and, under a "constitutional declaration" issued by the military last month, he cannot declare war or order troops on the streets in the case of a domestic crisis without prior agreement from the military.