Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed… (European Pressphoto Agency )
CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi expanded his authority Thursday in a startling power grab that weakens the courts and frees him from judicial oversight amid deepening political intrigue in the Arab world's most populous nation.
The Islamist president's bold gesture, which infuriated civil rights leaders, came the day after he was praised for negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Thursday's move in effect makes Morsi, who already holds executive and legislative powers, the ultimate force in a country that has no parliament and has yet to draft a new constitution.
The decree, which still could be challenged by the Supreme Constitutional Court, extends immunity to the Islamist-led assembly writing the constitution. The court has been reviewing whether to dissolve the body over legitimacy questions. But Morsi's decision appears to protect from judicial oversight an assembly that secularists accuse of wanting to impose sharia, or Islamic law.
"Morsi today usurped all state powers [and] appointed himself Egypt's new pharaoh," Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and reformist, posted on his Twitter account. "A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences."
The timing of Morsi's decision suggested that he was looking to calm violent protests against the state for not bringing security forces to justice in the deaths of demonstrators over the last year. After announcing the decree, Morsi ordered a retrial for toppled leader Hosni Mubarak, whose life sentence for his role in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising was seen by many Egyptians as too lenient.
New trials were also ordered for other former top officials. Morsi fired Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak-era holdover often criticized for not aggressively pursuing members of the old regime. The president tried to get rid of Mahmoud last month but relented, embarrassed, after an uproar from judges criticizing him for maneuvering to silence an independent judiciary.
Morsi's strategy in recent months has been to marginalize the courts, including many judges who were appointed by Mubarak. Morsi views the judiciary, which this year disbanded the Islamist-led parliament, as disrupting the country's transition to democracy.
But civil rights advocates argue that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party are weakening state institutions to broaden their power. Morsi's decree means that all actions he takes in office until a constitution is approved are not subject to legal review.
On Thursday night, dueling protests marked the nation's political intrigue and divide. Muslim Brotherhood members chanted in front of the main court building in downtown Cairo demanding that Morsi "purify" the judiciary. Meanwhile, protesters in nearby Tahrir Square held up pictures depicting Morsi as half himself and half Mubarak.
"Morsi's decision is an attempt to completely control the state powers, which shows the world that Egypt is still in political turmoil and instability," said Nabil Abdelfattah, a legal expert with Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "He became the ruler of everything, his hold on legislative and executive powers is completely dangerous and unacceptable.
"What Morsi did was simply unconstitutional and a new struggle between the executive branch and the judiciary.... The Supreme Constitutional Court will rule this decree as unconstitutional."
Morsi has in effect controlled the executive and legislative branches of government since shortly after he was inaugurated in June. His power has been laid out by amendments to an interim constitution. His authority appeared even more absolute when he forced the resignations in August of the top military leaders, including Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had ruled the country after Mubarak's downfall in February 2011.
The Brotherhood stood squarely behind Morsi: "The president's decisions are all directed toward achieving justice, ending corruption and fulfilling the goals of Jan. 25 revolution" that toppled Mubarak.
Without a constitution, and with no date set for parliamentary elections, Egyptians are on volatile political terrain. The atmosphere is complicated by deep economic problems, water and gas shortages and a desperate need for foreign investment. Analysts believe Morsi wants to make unilateral decisions in an effort to improve the country and prevent a public backlash against him and the Brotherhood.
That has already happened. Many Egyptians say Morsi and the Brotherhood are out to monopolize the country just as Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party did. The difference is that Morsi is advancing an Islamist agenda in a bid to reshape Egypt and lift it to a leading voice in a changing Arab world.
So far, the military, for decades the country's most revered institution, has not intervened since Morsi's purge in August. But the wider feeling, especially among activists, is that the promise of last year's uprising has left Egypt not with a model democracy but with another strongman.
"The revolution rose because of the absolute power of an individual," former presidential candidate Abdel Moniem Aboul Fotouh said on his Twitter account. "Passing a few of the revolution's demands disguised in a bundle of authoritarian decisions is actually a setback for the revolution."
Activist Mohamed Waked told Al Jazeera live: "This is unacceptable, he [Morsi] has now appointed himself as the almighty."
Abdellatif is a special correspondent.