CAIRO: Egypt’s president told the country’s top judges Monday that he did not infringe on their authority when he seized near absolute powers, setting up a prolonged showdown on the eve of a mass protest planned by opponents of the Islamist leader.
An aide to President Mohammad Mursi said the decree was limited to “sovereignty-related issues,” but that did not satisfy his critics.
The uncompromising stance came during a meeting between Mursi and members of the Supreme Judiciary Council in a bid to resolve a four-day crisis that has plunged the country into a fresh round of turmoil with clashes between the two sides that have left two protesters dead and hundreds wounded.
The judiciary, the main target of Mursi’s edicts, also has pushed back, calling the decrees a power grab and an “assault” on the branch’s independence. Judges and prosecutors stayed away from many courts in Cairo and other cities Sunday and Monday.
A spokesman said Mursi told the judges that he acted within his right as the nation’s sole source of legislation when he issued decrees putting himself above judicial oversight. The president also extended the same immunity to two bodies dominated by his Islamist allies – a panel drafting a new constitution and parliament’s mostly toothless upper chamber.
The spokesman, Yasser Ali, also told reporters that Mursi had assured the judges that the decrees did not in any way “infringe” on the judiciary and that they were “temporary” and limited only to “sovereignty-related issues.”
Two prominent rights lawyers – Gamal Eid and Ahmad Ragheb – dismissed Ali’s remarks.
Eid said the decrees were designed to keep “Mursi above the law,” while Ragheb said they amounted to “playing with words.”
“This is not what Egyptians are objecting to and protesting about. If the president wanted to resolve the crisis, there should be an amendment to his constitutional declaration.”
Ali’s comments signaled Mursi’s resolve not to back down or compromise on the constitutional amendments he announced last week, raising the likelihood of more violence. Both sides had planned competing rallies in Cairo Tuesday, but the Brotherhood canceled its rally late Monday, saying it wanted to reduce tensions and congestion in the city.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke Monday by telephone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammad Kamel Amr to “register American concerns about Egypt’s political situation,” according to spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Opposition activists have denounced Mursi’s decrees as a blatant power grab, and refused to enter a dialogue with the presidency before the edicts are rescinded. The president has vigorously defended the new powers, saying they are a necessary temporary measure to implement badly needed reforms and protect Egypt’s transition to democracy after last year’s ouster of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
Mursi says he wants to retain the new powers until the new constitution is adopted in a nationwide referendum and parliamentary elections are held, a timeline that stretches to the middle of next year.
Many members of the judiciary were appointed under Mubarak, drawing allegations, even by some of Mursi’s critics, that they are trying to perpetuate the regime’s corrupt practices. But opponents are angry that the decrees leave the president without any check on his power.
Mursi was quoted by Ali as telling his prime minister and security chiefs earlier Monday that his decrees were designed to “end the transitional period as soon as possible.” His comments appeared to run contrary to a prediction made earlier Monday by Justice Minister Ahmad Mekki that a resolution of the crisis was imminent. Mekki, who has been mediating between the judiciary and the presidency to try to defuse the crisis, did not give any details.
Mursi’s decrees were motivated in part by a court ruling in June that dissolved parliament’s more powerful lower chamber known as the People’s Assembly, which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamists.
The verdict meant that legislative authority first fell in the hands of the then-ruling military, but Mursi grabbed it in August after he ordered the retirement of the army’s two top generals.
Mursi’s decrees, which were announced Thursday, saved the constitutional panel and the upper chamber from a fate similar to that of the People’s Assembly because several courts looking into the legal basis of their creation were scheduled to issue verdicts to disband them.
Ayman al-Sayyad, a member of Mursi’s 17-member advisory council, said the presidential aides had asked the president in meetings over the weekend to negotiate a way out of the crisis and enter dialogue with all political forces to iron out differences over the nation’s new constitution.
The dispute over the decree has played out in street protests across the country, including in the capital, Cairo, and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
The Health Ministry said Monday that 444 people have been wounded nationwide, including 49 who remain hospitalized, since the clashes erupted Friday, according to a statement carried by the official news agency MENA.