Egypt's Leader Said to Agree to Limit Scope of Judicial Decree

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CAIRO -- President Mohamed Morsi agreed on Monday to limit the scope of a sweeping decree he had issued last week that raised his edicts above any judicial review, according to a report by a television network allied with his party. The agreement, reached with top judicial authorities, would leave most of Mr. Morsi's actions subject to review by the courts, but it appears to preserve a crucial power: protecting the country's constitutional council from being dissolved by the courts before it finishes its work.

The agreement was announced by a spokesman for the president; as of Monday night it had not yet been confirmed by the judges.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that sponsored Mr. Morsi and his party, announced that it was canceling a major demonstration in support of the president that had been planned for Tuesday.

Mr. Morsi's deal with the judges follows four days of rising tensions and flashes of violence across the country set off by his decree, which removed the last check on his power to rule Egypt.

Mr. Morsi said he was forced to issue the decree in order to protect the constitutional assembly from the courts, which had shuttered Egypt's first freely elected parliament and disbanded an earlier constituent assembly, both dominated by Mr. Morsi's Islamist allies. But the scope of the new powers claimed by the president galvanized his political opposition. Vandals attacked more than a dozen offices of his political party, and thousands of people demonstrated in the streets to vent their fears of a new autocracy in a country that had just shaken one off.

The agreement announced on Monday could be a watershed moment for Egypt's new order: a triumph of respect for the rule of law and the independence of the courts, and a demonstration that Egypt's new leaders are capable of the kind of compromise in the national interest that often eludes the party leaders in even the most practiced democracies.

But opponents appeared set to hold out for a further withdrawal of presidential authority, as well as the immediate dissolution of the constitutional assembly. Speaking at a press conference while Mr. Morsi was meeting with the judges, the opposition activist and intellectual Abdel Haleem Qandeil called for "a long-term battle," declaring that the limiting of the decree should only be the first step toward the opposition's goal of "the withdrawal of the legitimacy of Morsi's presence in the presidential palace."

Mr. Morsi's advisers emphasized on Monday that they had not altered the decree's language, and they portrayed the agreement with the judges as merely an explanation of the president's original intent, rather than any pullback.

But the statement Mr. Morsi issued last Thursday to claim his broader powers had explicitly exempted all his future edicts from judicial oversight until a new constitution is ratified, and in recent days Mr. Morsi's justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, publicly criticized the wording of the decree as over-broad; he argued that the president should add a phrase restricting its application only to presidential edicts related to the constitutional assembly and certain other matters.

Some of the ramifications of the deal remain unclear. Mr. Morsi and the judges of the Supreme Judicial Council agreed to limit the scope of the president's immunity from judicial review to matters known in Egypt as acts of sovereignty. That is an established formulation in Egyptian law, so interpreting the decree that way meant he would not be claiming new immunity.

By accepting that interpretation, Mr. Morsi in effect pulled back from the aspects of his decree that aroused alarm about a power grab.

Still, the deal appeared to give Mr. Morsi the power he said he had deemed most essential: to protect the constitutional assembly so that it can stay in business long enough to finish a charter and end Egypt's tortured transition after the overthrow of its former strongman, Hosni Mubarak.

Cracks appeared in Mr. Morsi's government on Sunday over the decree. At least three other senior advisers resigned over the measure, and the move had also prompted widening street protests and cries from opponents that Mr. Morsi, who already governs without a legislature, was moving toward a new autocracy in Egypt, less than two years after the ouster of the strongman Hosni Mubarak.

With a threatened strike by the nation's judges, a plunge in the country's stock market and more street protests looming, Mr. Morsi's administration initially sent mixed messages on Sunday over whether it was willing to consider a compromise: a spokesman for the president's party insisted that there would be no change in his edict, but a statement from the party indicated for the first time a willingness to give political opponents "guarantees against monopolizing the fateful decisions of the homeland in the absence of the Parliament."

Mr. Mekki, the influential leader of a judicial independent movement under Mr. Mubarak and one of Mr. Morsi's closest aides, had actively tried to broker a deal with top jurists to resolve the crisis.

The reaction to the decree had presented the most acute test to date of the ability and willingness of Mr. Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president and a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to engage in the kind of give and take that democratic government requires. But he also must contend with real doubts about the willingness of his anti-Islamist opponents to join him in compromise. Each side is mired in deep 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.

Government and party officials maintained that Mr. Morsi was forced to claim the expansive new powers to protect the process of writing the country's new constitution, and that the decree would be in effect only until the charter was in place. A court of judges appointed under the Mubarak government was widely rumored to be about to dissolve the elected constitutional assembly, dominated by Mr. Morsi's Islamist allies -- just as the same court had previously cast out the newly elected Islamist-led Parliament -- and the decree issued by Mr. Morsi on Thursday gave him the power to stop it.

The Muslim Brotherhood's political offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party, faced the ire of protesters. Nader Omran, a spokesman for the party, said on Sunday that as many as 13 of its offices around the country had been burned or ransacked, and he blamed the attacks on an organized conspiracy.

The most significant sign of the growing pressure on Mr. Morsi, though, may have been the apparent efforts of Mr. Mekki, the justice minister, to address the crisis by finding a way to scale back the decree.

Beginning in two television interviews late Saturday night, Mr. Mekki said that he trusted the sincerity of the president's intention to quickly end Egypt's tortured political transition, bring back a Parliament and turn over to it much of the vast power he currently holds. But Mr. Mekki said the text of Mr. Morsi's decree was much too sweeping, and that he could never have signed it himself because it "violates my core convictions."

"The means, the tools and the wording caused exactly the opposite of what was required," he said.

He publicly urged Mr. Morsi to amend the decree so that it would no longer place all the president's future edicts above judicial scrutiny -- the provision that aroused the loudest outcry -- but instead would protect only edicts related to the functions of the constituent assembly and upper house of Parliament.

"I believe it is the duty of the president" to limit the decree's scope, Mr. Mekki said.

Mr. Mekki met on Sunday with the Supreme Council of the Judiciary, the highest council overseeing the Egyptian courts, to discuss the issue, and there were signs that he may have had some influence. In a statement afterward, the council urged judges not to disrupt their work by joining in a proposed strike over the decree.

But the council also appeared to join Mr. Mekki in urging the president to scale back his writ, calling for limiting the immunity from judicial review to "laws and decisions issued by the president as sovereignty acts," a reference to Egyptian legal precedents that could justify such executive action in certain circumstances.

It was unclear whether the court that was to rule on the constitutional assembly, the Supreme Constitutional Court, would respect such an action. When that court dissolved the elected Parliament, Mr. Morsi sought to use a presidential decree to restore it, only to have the court strike that down as well.

Most of the political opposition in the country, newly united to fight the latest decree, has vowed not to hold talks with Mr. Morsi until he withdraws it.

The state news media reported that the Morsi advisers who had resigned over the decree included Samir Morqos, one of the few Christians in the administration; Sekina Fouad, one of the few women, and Farouk Guweida, a poet and intellectual.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi's opponents had each called for major demonstrations in Cairo on Tuesday. Sporadic clashes broke out over the weekend in several cities, including Damanhour in the Nile Delta, one of the places where the Brotherhood's offices were attacked. A 15-year-old Brotherhood supporter, Islam Fathi Masoud, was killed in the violence, and security officials said scores were injured.

By Sunday night, Brotherhood leaders were citing the boy as an inspiration. "When Future of Egypt is in balance, we have no regrets, we are more than willing to pay for it with our lives, not votes," Gehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood, wrote in a message reproduced on the group's Web site.

Mayy El Sheikh and Mai Ayyad contributed reporting.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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