Pressure Grows on Egyptian Leader After Judicial Decree

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CAIRO -- New cracks emerged in the government of President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt on Sunday over his decree claiming power beyond the review of any court in the country, which has been met with loud protests. While Mr. Morsi defended his decree and insisted that it was only temporary, his justice minister began arguing publicly for a retreat that might defuse an escalating battle between Egypt's new Islamist leaders and the institutions of its old secular-authoritarian government.

The justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, is an influential former leader of the movement for judicial independence under Hosni Mubarak, and is now one of Mr. Morsi's closest advisers. He told two television talk shows late Saturday night that he objected to the scope of the president's decree, which his opponents say could be a first step toward a new Islamist autocracy.

The president's office has said the decree was needed to protect the democratically chosen constituent assembly that is trying to write a new Egyptian constitution from Mubarak-appointed judges who appeared poised to dissolve it. Mr. Mekki said that he supported that goal but that the president could accomplish it with a much narrower edict -- one that did not assert sweeping immunity from judicial review on other matters, the feature of the decree Mr. Morsi issued on Thursday that has prompted the loudest protests.

On Sunday, Mr. Mekki met with the highest council overseeing the Egyptian courts to discuss the matter, and the council issued a statement of its own that scholars said appeared to endorse Mr. Mekki's proposed compromise. Mr. Morsi is scheduled to meet with his advisers to discuss it Tuesday morning.

"In his head, the president thought that this would push us forward, but then it was met with all this inflammation," Mr. Mekki said of Mr. Morsi's decree. He faulted the president for failing to consult with his opponents before issuing it, but he also faulted the opponents for their own unwillingness to come to the table: "I blame all of Egypt, because they do not know how to talk to each other."

Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president and a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, now faces a test of his ability and willingness to engage in the kind of compromise that democratic government requires. But he also faces real doubts about the willingness of his secular-minded opponents to join him in compromise. Each side is mired in suspicion of the other, a legacy of the decades when the Brotherhood survived here only as an insular secret society, demonized as dangerous radicals by most of the Egyptian elite.

"There is a deep mistrust," said Emad Shahin, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo who studies the Brotherhood. "It is an ugly round of partisan politics," he said, "a bone-crushing phase."

Some conflicting signals emerged Sunday from people close to the president, while Egypt's stock market fell sharply, driven by investors' concerns about increased instability, and street protests continued in Cairo and elsewhere. A teenager was killed and 40 people were injured when protesters stormed a Muslim Brotherhood building in Damanhoor in the Nile Delta, the Associated Press reported, citing security officials.

.The president's office issued a statement on Sunday stressing that the controversial decree was meant to last only until the country approves a new constitution, and that Mr. Morsi was committed to reaching a national consensus on what that new constitution should say.

A spokesman for Mr. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, though, insisted that the president would never back down from the decree, arguing that the constituent assembly working on the constitution needed protection both from Mubarak-era judges and from obstructionist political opponents who want to drag out Egypt's transition. The first attempt to form a constitutional assembly was annulled by judges, and the latest version has been plagued by complaints that the Islamists who dominate it were rushing through the work and ignoring minority concerns.

Both the president's office and his political party issued statements on Sunday suggesting, for the first time, a willingness to compromise with opponents and provide "guarantees against monopolizing the fateful decisions of the homeland in the absence of the Parliament."

Mr. Mekki, the justice minister, said he trusted Mr. Morsi's intention to quickly end Egypt's tortured political transition, bring back a parliament and turn over the vast power he currently holds. "But the means, the tools and the wording caused exactly the opposite of what was required," the justice minister said, urging Mr. Morsi to amend the decree.

The decree's sweeping nature, insulating all the president's actions from judicial oversight at a time when, after the Parliament was shut down by the courts, he wields legislative as well as executive power, prompted at least three presidential advisers to resign. They include Samir Morqos, one of the few Christians in the administration; Sekina Fouad, one of the few women, and Farouk Guweida, a poet and intellectual.

On Saturday, judges across Egypt rebelled against the decree, and a major association of judges, the Judges Club, called for a judicial strike. State television reported Sunday that Mr. Mekki was meeting with judges in Cairo in an attempt to broker a resolution.

A coalition of opposition leaders, including the former United Nations diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei and three other former Egyptian presidential candidates, demanded that the decree be canceled.

On the first day of trading since the decree was issued, Egypt's stock market fell about 9.5 percent over concerns that the latest standoff could bring more instability. Clashes involving the opposition were reported Sunday in Cairo for a third day, and the Muslim Brotherhood has called for rival demonstrations, raising the possibility of street fights between the two sides.

A judicial strike would be the steepest escalation yet in a political struggle between the country's new Islamist leaders and the institutions of the old authoritarian government over the drafting of a constitution.

The call to strike by the Judges Club, which has been led in recent years by a clique loyal to Mr. Mubarak and is opposed to the Islamists, followed a vote by a more representative assembly of about 1,000 club members. They urged courts to suspend all activities except those vital to citizens, and it was unclear how individual courts might respond.

State news media reported that judges and prosecutors had already declared a strike in Alexandria, and there were reports of planned walkouts in Qulubiya and Beheira, but those could not be confirmed.

As the Judges Club met Saturday in the High Court building, a small crowd of protesters outside chanted that Egypt's judges were "a red line." When another group armed with the flares favored by hard-core soccer fans tried to force their way into the building, the police fired tear gas.

Inside, the Mubarak-appointed chief prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, declared to a crowd of cheering judges that he rejected Mr. Morsi's attempt to fire him. He called the presidential decree "null and void" and warned of a "systematic campaign against the country's institutions in general and the judiciary in particular." Judges chanted for the "fall of the regime," reprising the signature rallying cry of the revolt last year against Mr. Mubarak, but this time against Mr. Morsi.

Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer, said he had filed one of several lawsuits asking the courts to attempt to overturn Mr. Morsi's decree.

The coalition of political opposition leaders, calling their group the National Salvation Front, declared that it would not negotiate with Mr. Morsi about resolving the crisis until he withdrew his decree. "We will not enter into a dialogue about anything while this constitutional declaration remains intact and in force," said Amr Moussa, one of the leaders and Mr. Mubarak's former foreign minister. "We demand that it be withdrawn, and then we can talk."

Mr. Morsi's supporters accuse many in the constituent assembly's non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet, hoping to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat by the Islamists, who have pressed to complete the constitution by the end of the year.

"They are afraid of democracy, really," Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said of the non-Islamist minority in an interview this month. "They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process."

On Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists to take over work on the constitution -- a call that Mr. Morsi's supporters called vindication of their belief that judges and the opposition meant to block the assembly's work. "They are lending weight to his suspicions," said Mona El-Ghobashy, an Egyptian professor at Barnard who studies both the Brotherhood and the courts.

The increasingly vocal criticism of the assembly threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the ultimate charter, and it has only increased the likelihood that Islamist leaders may seek to pass and ratify it on their own, over the opposition of other groups, further damaging its credibility.

Kareem Fahim, Nevine Ramzy and Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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