Protesters gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square to denounce President… (Khaled Elfiqi / European…)
CAIRO — Clashes erupted across Egypt over President Mohamed Morsi's decree expanding his authority, a move that sharpened lines between Islamists and those who fear the president is stealing power in order to edge the country closer to Islamic law.
Offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which Morsi headed before he became president, were set ablaze Friday in Alexandria and reportedly in Suez and Port Said. Pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators battled in Cairo and towns in the south.
The unrest highlighted the anger arising from Morsi's decision Thursday to sidestep the courts and free his office of judicial oversight. With no new constitution or parliament, the president holds wide executive and legislative authority that has led his detractors to call him a pharaoh.
Morsi's decree troubled Western capitals, including Washington, which praised him this week for Egypt's pivotal role in negotiating a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in the Gaza Strip. A State Department spokeswoman said Morsi's recent move "raises concerns for many Egyptians and the international community."
The Egyptian state news agency reported that at least 140 people were injured in melees. As night fell, plumes of smoke and streaks of tear gas drifted over several cities as protesters hunkered and new banners were unfurled in what suggested the stirrings of a new revolt. Twenty-six political movements called for a weeklong sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
"Morsi is ignorant; he will burn down the country," protesters chanted in the square.
Riot police swinging batons chased rock-throwing youths on side streets adjoining Tahrir, where thousands of protesters gathered, led by Nobel peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and other opposition figures. Miles away in north Cairo, thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Morsi supporters demonstrated at the presidential palace.
"What I am working to achieve is political and economic stability. This is what I want," Morsi told his followers at the palace. "I am not worried about the presence of opposition. I am careful to allow a strong opposition that will strictly monitor me. My decisions were aimed at preserving our nation, our people, and the revolution."
Morsi and the once-outlawed Brotherhood appear to understand that their credibility will suffer if the economy doesn't improve and jobs are not provided. But overall, the Islamists are perplexed over how to ensure that Egypt becomes a more religious state while also governing of nation of 82 million people that after 30 years of autocratic rule by President Hosni Mubarak are demanding rights and freedoms.
Morsi, who was elected in June after last year's overthrow of Mubarak, is seeking to weaken the courts and sideline Mubarak-era judges he says have disrupted the transition to democracy. The Supreme Constitutional Court this year dissolved the Islamist-led parliament and may yet disband the assembly that is drafting a new constitution.
That body, which is expected to deliver a finished document in December, is also dominated by Islamists. Morsi's decree essentially grants it immunity from court decisions, infuriating secularists, liberals and Christians who have resigned from the assembly in recent weeks over accusations that it is too heavily influenced by sharia, or Islamic law.
"I don't like, and don't want, and there is no need, to use exceptional measures," Morsi said. He hinted that members of the judiciary and Mubarak-era officials "are gnawing the bones of the nation" and they "must be held accountable."
The president attempted to make his decree palatable by firing Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak appointee who has been widely reviled for not aggressively prosecuting members of the old regime. Mahmoud, whom Morsi tried unsuccessfully to remove last month, told Egyptian media Friday that he would fight the decision.
Morsi also called for Mubarak and other former officials to face new trials in the deaths of hundreds of protesters killed during the revolution. Mubarak is serving life in prison for complicity in the killings, but many Egyptians believe the sentence is not severe enough. Violent protests this week broke out over complaints that too few former police and security forces had been tried.
The president's strategy did not persuade protesters in Tahrir.
"The state is crumbling. The law is being completely sidestepped. We are now a lawless country," said protester Nermin Tahoon. "Morsi disguised the revolution's demands into a twisted package so he could assume all power. Since when was he a revolutionary? He's barely a reformist. He simply wants power for him and his followers."