With one swift swoop Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued decrees that have given him more powers than any of his predecessors ever enjoyed, stirring massive protests and condemnations from his opponents.
Egypt was in uproar early Thursday evening as news of the decrees and what they called for by the country's first democratically elected president seeped to the public. President Morsi challenged the judiciary, and in effect rendered it non-existent, by issuing presidential orders that exempted decisions taken by him from judicial review – meaning he cannot be held accountable by any executive body.
The decrees also barred the courts from being able to dissolute the committee charged with drafting the constitution – especially as it's now come under the majority rule and sway of the Muslim Brotherhood following the withdrawal of the Coptic Church as well as of secular and liberal members from the council. Morsi also sacked the prosecutor general and ordered the retrial of a number of cases involving the deaths of protesters during the days of the peoples’ revolt back in January-February 2011, including that of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Secular and liberal groups, politicians and public figures quickly condemned the move by President Morsi declaring it a step back to dictatorship. Former presidential candidate and head of the Destour Party Dr. Mohamed Baradie took to Twitter and posted: “Morsi today usurped all state powers and appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh. A major blow to the revolution that cld have dire consequences.”
Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights stated: “Morsi just claimed more powers than (Gamal) AbdelNasser, (Hosni) Mubarak and SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) combined. Anti-democratic doesn't begin to describe his decree. 52% of the vote doesn't give Morsi a mandate to declare martial laws and abolish judicial oversight in the absence of a parliament.”
Amr Hamzawy one of the few liberal MPs in the until-now dissolved Parliament wrote “An absolute presidential tyranny. Egypt is facing a horrifying coup against legitimacy and the rule of law and a complete assassination of the democratic transition.”
Presidential supporters were quick to praise the decrees saying they were necessary in order to prevent any chance of derailment by the former regime as Egypt continues through this turbulent transition and that the powers handed to the president would be void as soon as a new constitution is drafted and implemented.
"He's cementing the process because other arms of the state are still loyal to the Mubarak regime," said Gehad al-Haddad, a senior adviser to the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi's ruling Islamist coalition.
"The president can issue any decision or measure to protect the revolution. The constitutional declarations, decisions and laws issued by the president are final and not subject to appeal," Morsi spokesperson Yasser Ali said on television, adding that the declaration is mainly aimed at "cleansing state institutions" and "destroying the infrastructure of the old regime."
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The reaction from the opposition was instant. In Tahrir Square and other major cities on Friday, numbers were reaching those of the January protests amidst calls for more protests this week and another 'revolution'. The country's judges have also called for nationwide protests against the decrees, demanding that they be rescinded following a meeting by the Supreme Judicial Council, the highest judicial authority. Saying the decrees are an "unprecedented attack" on them, judges also called for the suspension of work in all courts and prosecution administrations.
Fierce clashes between the two opposing sides have erupted in a number of cities including Assiut, the site of the recent train accident which resulted in the death of more then 50 people, most of them children. In Alexandria and Suez, the local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood were stormed and set on fire by protesters. Heavy tear gas usage by the security forces has also been reported in a number of locations. In addition, the Cairo Stock Exchange's benchmark index, EGX-30, has fallen by 10% after Morsi announced his new powers, losing some $5 billion in value.
But does the opposition have a viable plan besides calling on people to go out and protest? For a long time the opposing figures have put up a disjointed front struggling to build a strong, united force in the post-Mubarak era which in turn has severely curtailed and undermined their efforts to push forward their agenda. However, the mere fact they are now united is one step forward with Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi, Ayman Nour and Dr. El Baradei all appearing together and denouncing the decrees.
Already a new party, the National Salvation Front, has been established and includes tens of political groups and parties who've announced their refusal to hold any dialogue meetings with the president until he rescinds the decrees while also announcing their support of the protests, sit-ins and giving their backing to the actions undertaken by the judges. According to El Baradei the group is also pushing for the creation of a new constitutional assembly and a unity government. "There is no middle ground, no dialogue before he rescinds this declaration. There is no room for dialogue until then," he said, adding that Morsi "cannot get away with murder."
So far Morsi's decisions have already had an effect within his circle as two of his political advisors Samir Morcos and Sakina Fouad have resigned from their posts saying they were not consulted prior to the announcements. In interviews on state television, the Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki expressed serious reservations about the wording of the decree as well as the decision to issue it without consulting the opposition.
Moreover, the rhetoric coming from the president has started to sound similar to that used by the military Supreme Council when they ruled the country saying: he welcomed “a strong and genuine opposition” and that “the faithful opposition is different from the hired thugs attacking the police right now.”
If President Morsi decides to repeal the decrees undoubtedly it will have negative connotations as his credibility will take a severe beating, especially as he'd already backed down from a number of decrees in the past, including the sacking of the prosecutor general only to change his mind when challenged, and to do so again will undoubtedly erode his standing. Yet a stalemate will see the country stuck in a situation that could very easily unravel and spiral out of hand quickly.
Internationally, the Egyptian president is riding a wave of accolades over his handling of the recent Hamas-Israel crisis in the Gaza Strip and his negotiation skills in bringing about a ceasefire. But it seems the praise has had little effect on home soil with continuous daily criticism of the president and his government's inaction over vital domestic issues and policies confounded with the recent action undertaken by him.
Nathan Brown at the Carnegie Institute in Beirut in an interview carried by the New York Times summed up President Morsi's edicts as: “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.”
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East.