The Economist, Jun 15th 2012, 9:31 by I.A. | CAIRO
EGYPT'S Supreme Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that Ahmed Shafiq, a former chief of the Egyptian air force and the last prime minister of the deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, will after all be able to contest the second round of the presidential election that will take place on June 16th and 17th. That is a relief for Mr Shafiq and those who dreaded the prospect of last month's first round being annulled and the elections starting all over again. They include Muhammad Morsi, the front-runner backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr Morsi might have had more to fear from alternative candidates than Mr Shafiq, who is closely associated with Mr Mubarak's regime.
But that decision may be less controversial than another ruling by the same court, which effectively dissolves parliament on the grounds that the electoral law under which it was elected, which was passed last year, is unconstitutional. This is a political earthquake. It removes the Islamist parliamentary majority (which is backing Mr Morsi), and transfers legislative authority back to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has led Egypt's haphazard transition since February of last year. The military leaders may now appoint the constituent assembly tasked with writing a new, permanent constitution—a parliamentary privilege—further limiting civilian political forces' say in the country's affairs.
For many Egypt watchers, this amounts to a soft military coup through the proxy of the country's most important court—all of whose judges were appointees of Mr Mubarak. The court found that the third of parliamentary seats that were elected under the first-past-the post system (as opposed to proportional representation through party lists) were invalid; they should have been reserved for independents and should not have been contested by members of political parties. Explaining the ruling, the head of the court, Farouq Sultan, said that resolving this would entail the dissolution of parliament. While the Islamists might have lived with new elections for a third of the seats, how they will react to losing all power is unclear.
That such an important decision comes just two days before the presidential race says a great deal about how judicial decisions have been used as threats and bargaining chips during Egypt's transition. Almost a year and a half after Mr Mubarak stepped down, the country finds itself once again under absolute military rule. Even if a president is elected next week, it is not clear when he will assume his powers, since he is constitutionally required to swear his oath before parliament. He may now have to do so in front of the generals. Combined with a recent government decree (which was to be contested by parliament) giving the army the power to arrest civilians without a warrant, post-Mubarak Egypt is looking as though it is regressing, not advancing, with the armed forces from which Mr Mubarak came firmly in charge.
Egyptians are battle-scarred from this transition. It is not yet clear whether many will join the mass protests already being planned. The Muslim Brothers, who have accepted the decision about Mr Shafiq, have not yet responded to the dissolution of parliament. But if their candidate loses the presidential election, they will be left with little to show for their many compromises with SCAF over the last 16 months.
Mr Morsi has tried—thus far unsuccessfully—to present himself as the candidate of the revolution. But he has won few endorsements from secular-minded revolutionaries, many of whom have preferred to boycott the polls. Mr Shafiq, on the other hand, has rallied both died-in-the-wool power brokers of the Mubarak regime and establishment secularists who fear the Muslim Brotherhood. Within a week, a former general could once again lead the country, with his old colleagues controlling all the other levers of government.
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