Thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets around Egypt yesterday to protest a decree by President Mohamed Morsi that sidelines Egypt's judiciary, ensures the survival of a disputed constitution drafting assembly, and removes nearly all checks to his power until a new constitution is written.
Protesters clashed with the president's supporters in some cities, and attacked and burned local headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, also the party of President Morsi, in at least two cities. In Cairo, thousands of people filled Tahrir Square to voice their anger at what they viewed as a dictatorial power grab.
Protesters shouted slogans familiar from the days of the 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak, and expressed fear that Morsi was amassing power that would turn him into the type of authoritarian leader they had revolted against last year.
"Morsi will become a new dictator," said Ahmed Abd Rabou, an accountant who came to Tahrir to protest the president's decree, as he watched police fire tear gas at some demonstrators. "He wants to make himself a new pharaoh in Egypt."
On the other side of the city, thousands of people gathered at the presidential palace to support the president's decision. He made an appearance at the crowd, telling his supporters that he had done what was necessary to protect the revolution. "There are weevils eating away at the nation of Egypt," he said.
The president and his supporters cast his decision as one of last resort, necessary because loyalists of the former regime are trying to derail Egypt's transition to a stable democracy.
Others, including some of Egypt's international allies, called it a worrying concentration of power in the hands of one man. Because parliament is disbanded, Morsi currently holds legislative power as well as executive, and the judiciary remained the main check on his authority.
Morsi may not abuse his power now, but his actions establish a dangerous precedent, says H. A. Hellyer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who is based in Cairo.
"Morsi has just instituted a precedent, which is that if you win and circumstances allow, you get to decide the rules of the democratic game from scratch," says Dr. Hellyer. "This could lead to making Egyptian democracy purely about who wins at the ballot box, and then giving the victor a blank check to do whatever he wants until the next vote."
Anything to protect the revolution?
The president announced the surprise decision Nov. 22, after winning international accolades for brokering a truce in the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. He declared that all of his decisions and the laws he issues are immune from any challenge and cannot be overturned. He also said that no judicial body can dissolve the committee tasked with writing Egypt's new constitution, which has been stymied by waves of resignations, and extended the December deadline for finishing the document by two months.
He also declared Egypt's upper house of parliament immune from dissolution and fired the prosecutor general. And in what activists called perhaps the most worrying point for its vague and broad wording, the president said he could take any measure he sees fit in order to protect "the revolution, the life of the nation, national unity, or security." He says he will relinquish all these powers when a new constitution is in place.
In what appears an attempt to win popular approval for the move, he also ordered retrials for former President Hosni Mubarak, his Interior Minister Habib el Adly, and some of Mr. Adly's deputies on charges of ordering the killing of protesters during the uprising that swept Mr. Mubarak from power in 2011. He also increased the compensation paid to those who were wounded in the uprising.
Morsi was elected by a slim margin earlier this year. Just before the election, the Supreme Constitutional Court, filled with Mubarak appointees, disbanded Egypt's first post-uprising elected parliament, which was dominated by the FJP.
Morsi assumed the parliament's legislative power until a new body is elected, taking it from the military junta which sought, in an eleventh-hour power grab, to keep the legislative power for itself. Earlier this year, a court disbanded the first constituent assembly, after secular members withdrew in protest at Islamist domination of the body. The second constituent assembly, elected by the now-disbanded parliament, is now at risk of being disbanded again, in a court case that was due to be decided soon. Nearly all secular, liberal, and Christian members had resigned from the body, complaining that Islamist members didn't listen to their suggestions.
The repeated attempts by Mubarak loyalists in the judiciary to stymy Morsi's attempts to steer Egypt through a difficult transition into stability and fully-fledged democracy made it necessary for him to claim these temporary powers, says Gehad El Haddad, an advisor to the FJP. The president acted to protect the only representative bodies in Egypt – the constituent assembly and upper house of parliament – from corrupt Mubarak appointees who sought to bring them down.
"He created exceptional declarations that are suitable for exceptional times under exceptional circumstances," says Dr. Haddad. "For the last three months everyone has been pushing the president to do real genuine change in the state … Every time the president tried to enact his legislative power, the judicial system stood against him," primarily the prosecutor general and the constitutional court, says Haddad.
Egypt's prosecutor general, a Mubarak appointee who worked for years as a part of the former regime, brought flimsy cases against the former president, his sons, and former Interior Ministry officials. Mubarak and Adly were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, but their verdict has been appealed; Mubarak's two sons were acquitted of corruption charges, though they are still in prison on further charges.
Haddad acknowledges that the vague wording of the decree giving Morsi power to "protect the revolution" could cause the opposition to worry. But he pointed out that the president's powers are temporary, and that his move actually paves the way for a constitution that will define and limit his powers, and the subsequent election of a new parliament that will assume legislative power.
"It was an exceptional measure to take, but he tried other measures, and was stonewalled," says Haddad.
Others disagree that the move was the only way to get around Morsy's challenges. "There were other ways to do it," says Hellyer. "But they would require the Brotherhood to believe that they needed to get consensus from other political forces to carry it out. They think that since they won the presidential election, they have a blank check to go around due process in order to do whatever they think is best for the country."
Morsi's slim electoral margin does not give him the popular legitimacy he needs to enact such exceptional measures, Hellyer says.
"To get around due process, you need legitimacy that comes from overwhelming popular support. Considering Mr. Morsi only just barely won the presidency, that legitimacy is dubious – he seems to be hoping to just get his way regardless.”
FJP: Our opinions 'matter more'
Many of the protesters in Tahrir Friday supported Morsi's move to fire the prosecutor general, considered a corrupt Mubarak loyalist. "We demanded this a long time ago," said Mr. Abd Rabou, the protester. "Why did he do it now? He gives us some honey with the poison."
Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, says such exceptional measures were not the only way to reform the judiciary. There were provisions in the new draft constitution which would have allowed the prosecutor general, who previously served a life term, to be dismissed. The main problem of the judiciary is not its structure, but personnel -- such as the regime loyalists that Mubarak and his predecessor, Sadat, placed in key positions. That could have been reformed gradually, he says.
Instead, the decision removes what had been a check, however faulty, on executive power, and sets up a confrontation with the judiciary. "It gives the judiciary right now, and especially the Constitutional Court, a very, very stark choice. They can basically ignore this, in which case in a sense any long term prospect of judicial oversight over the executive is greatly undermined, or they can pick a full confrontation, do something like try to overturn this constitutional declaration," says Dr. Brown. "And that sets Egypt on an absolute collision course – a full constitutional crisis between a president who says 'I can do anything I want,' and a court that says 'No you can't and we can stop you.'"
The former prosecutor general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, rejected his dismissal in a press conference today and vowed to continue his work. And Egypt's highest judicial authority, the Supreme Judicial Council, said Morsi's decree was an "unprecedented attack" on the independence of the judiciary.
A group of judges gathered to protest the decision at a court building today, before the protest was attacked by unidentified assailants. Opposition parties and movements have called for protests on Nov. 27. Yet the judiciary's moves and popular protests are unlikely to build enough momentum to cause the president to reverse his decision.
"At the end of the day, the opposition can have their say, but they don't have anything more than their say because elections determine whose opinions matter more," says Haddad. "It's not our fault that our arguments are better listened to, better understood, and the people believe it serves their interests more. ... President Morsi has been trusted with the role and the promise to transition Egypt to stable democracy."