CAIRO: Egypt's prosecutor general defied a presidential decision to remove him from his post, entering his office Saturday in a downtown Cairo courthouse flanked by security and hundreds of judicial officials.
President Mohammed Morsi had ordered Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud to step down in an apparent bid to appease public anger over the acquittals of ex-regime officials accused of orchestrating violence against protesters last year.
Morsi appears to have broad public support for removing Mahmoud, who was appointed under ousted president Hosni Mubarak. But the prosecutor and a powerful judges' club said this infringes on the judiciary's independence, as Egyptian law protects the judicial officials such as the prosecutor general from be fired by the president.
To overcome the constraints on removing him, Morsi's decision asked Mahmoud to become ambassador to the Vatican. But Mahmoud refused to be reappointed.
The move confronts Morsi with a dilemma: if he moves too aggressively against Mahmoud, it feeds into criticisms that he is exceeding the powers of his office. If he moves too slowly, it feeds into the accusation that he is failing to address the goals of the 2011 uprising that overthrew Mubarak. Many say a whole overhaul of the judiciary, not just removal of the prosecutor general, is needed to effect change in justice.
The standoff with the prosecutor general continued as Morsi faced a new challenge in the form of violent protests between his supporters and critics.
The judicial standoff formed the backdrop to rival rallies Friday in Tahrir square that escalated into street fighting between his supporters and his critics, the first such confrontation since Morsi came to office in late June.
Pro-Morsi protesters held a rally in Tahrir square to urge the removal of Mahmoud. But they clashed with anti-Morsi demonstrations planned before to denounce the lack of progress on economic issues and a hotly contested constitution still in a drafting process. Morsi's supporters say the constitutional drafting panel was set up by an elected parliament and broadly represents Egypt's political factions. Critics say the process is dominated by a majority made up of Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood from which Morsi hails and more radical groups, when it should be determined by consensus.
Mahmoud said he will not leave his post despite official pressure for him to step down. Before heading to the president's office to discuss ways to defuse the standoff, Mahmoud said to a meeting of judges and attorneys that he was subjected to pressure and threats from Morsi's advisors.
"I refuse to work anywhere else except as prosecutor general, even if I was offered a ministerial position," Mahmoud said in comments carried by the MENA press agency.
In comments to the local media, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki said the decision to remove Mahmoud was under negotiation and had been announced "hastily." He denied he threatened the prosecutor general.
Morsi's goal in removing Mahmoud appeared to be to appease anger over the Wednesday acquittal of Mubarak loyalists over their alleged role in a turning point of the 2011 uprising, known as the "Battle of the Camel" after the camels ridden by some pro-Mubarak attackers who charged into an opposition crowd.
Many Egyptian activists accuse Mahmoud of having failed, either intentionally or due to incompetence, to present a strong case against the accused.
But they question the timing of Morsi's move, arguing that it distracts from the conflict over the constitution. Also, with parliament dissolved, Morsi has legislative authority, and liberals and secularists fear that his new foray into the affairs of the judiciary indicate that he is amassing too much power.
Morsi's advisors say the president's decisions are a response to public pressure.