CAIRO -- With a constitutional assembly on the brink of collapse and protesters battling the police in the streets here over the slow pace of change, President Mohamed Morsi issued a sweeping decree on Thursday night, granting himself broad new powers above any court and ordering the retrial of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Mr. Morsi, an Islamist who won Egypt's first free presidential vote, portrayed himself as acting to satisfy popular demands. But the unexpected breadth of his new powers immediately raised fears that he might become a new strongman.
"An absolute presidential tyranny," Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of the dissolved Parliament who had been a well-known political scientist at Western institutions, wrote in an online commentary. "Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition."
Mr. Morsi made his move as he was basking in praise from the White House and other international accolades for his central role negotiating a cease-fire the previous night between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
His spokesman, Yasser Ali, stressed that Mr. Morsi's power grab was "temporary," until the ratification of a new constitution and election of a new Parliament. "Going around in a vicious circle in a transitional period has to end," Mr. Ali said, apparently alluding to the political paralysis that stymied a first constitutional assembly and now threatens to defeat a second one. The process, he said, "has to be concluded to serve the best interest of the homeland."
He called the Morsi decree "a revolutionary declaration in every meaning of the word."
Mr. Morsi's move came just days after about a quarter of the constitutional assembly -- most of its non-Islamist members, including representatives of Egypt's Coptic Church -- walked out in protest against an Islamist rush to complete the charter before a panel of holdover Mubarak-era judges could use a looming deadline or other arguments to dissolve the assembly. He pushed back by two months the panel's deadline to finish the charter,
Mr. Morsi already governs without the check of a Parliament. Egypt's constitutional court ordered the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated Parliament on the eve of his election, citing technical rules about the voting system used. And in August Mr. Morsi successfully ordered the council of generals who had assumed Parliament's lawmaking powers to cede them and return to their barracks, although many people assume that the possibility the generals could return allows them to continue to wield influence.
Nathan Brown, a scholar of the Egyptian legal system at the Carnegie Institute in Beirut, said Mr. Morsi might relinquish his autocratic new powers in just a few months with the ratification of a new constitution. But if he does, he will have defied historical precedent.
Mr. Brown summarized Mr. Morsi's overall message: "I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still. But don't worry -- it's just for a little while."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.