Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, whom President Mohamed Morsi… (Mohammed Asad, Associated…)
CAIRO — Political tension sharpened Saturday when judges threatened a nationwide strike and condemned President Mohamed Morsi for his decision to expand his power amid growing mistrust in Egypt's transition to democracy.
The Supreme Judicial Council urged Morsi, whose decree on Thursday put his office above judicial oversight, to reverse what it called an "unprecedented attack" on the courts. "We call upon the president to retract this declaration and all articles that affect the judiciary's independence," it said.
The consequences of a battle over the separation of powers were evident when a separate association of judges called for a partial strike, and judges in Alexandria suspended their duties. If similar actions spread to Cairo and other cities, tens of thousands of court cases would be delayed, crippling a judicial system strained by rising crime and pressure to prosecute officials and businessmen tied to the toppled regime of Hosni Mubarak.
Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, whom Morsi moved to fire Thursday, addressed the judges, saying that the president was running a "systematic campaign against the country's institutions ... and the judiciary in particular."
Street protests against Morsi continued in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where more than 20 political movements have called for a weeklong sit-in. Scores of young men hurled rocks through clouds of tear gas at riot police on nearby side streets. Clashes also erupted between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators in front of the Supreme Judiciary Council.
The protests were smaller than on Friday, indicating the opposition lacks organization and shared goals to challenge the president and the politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood. But they revealed how polarized Egypt has become as its hopes for democracy have been marred by rancor between Islamists and secularists and other non-Muslims.
The nation is flying blind in many ways, led by a conservative Islamist with little political experience who nevertheless has been lauded for his recent diplomacy, including negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. At home, though, state institutions crumble, mistrust in government abounds, and little has been done to improve a faltering economy.
Much of this was to be expected after 30 years of corrupt rule by Mubarak. Yet for many Egyptians the struggle over power and the constitution is a philosophical battle that doesn't speak to their frail finances and deeper worries about everyday life that last year's revolution was meant to address.
Morsi's decree was a bold gamble. The president, serving without a new constitution or a parliament, had already controlled the executive and legislative branches of government. Morsi suggested he is justified in sidelining Mubarak-era judges, whom he accused of blocking Egypt's steps toward a constitutional democracy.
The Supreme Constitutional Court disbanded the Islamist-dominated parliament in June. Morsi feared that the court was also preparing next month to dissolve the Islamist-led assembly drafting the country's constitution. Such a move, he said, would create further political turmoil, delay parliamentary elections and leave Egypt without a legal blueprint to run its affairs.
The president's decree "completely destabilizes the political makeup for the country going forward," said Hafsa Halawa, an activist and lawyer. "Our biggest problem lies with the fact that parliament was dissolved. This left the executive with no balancing of powers. [His] taking over the judiciary is incredibly dangerous. It's unclear where Egypt goes from here."
She added: "The opposition has to be smart and work toward cornering the Muslim Brotherhood into forcing Morsi to go back on his actions."
Morsi, who has the support of a small circle of judges, has said his decree is temporary and will be withdrawn when a constitution is approved, probably early next year.
But the president's critics say Morsi's action is a blatant power play to enshrine Islamic law in the constitution and further the interests of the Brotherhood. His detractors say it's ironic that Morsi espouses advancing democracy even as he raises himself above an independent judiciary and democratic institutions.
"The president's decision may eventually lead to a civil war," Tarek El-Kholy, a member of the April 6 youth movement, told the Ahram Online news website. "Morsi said he sought stability, but we can all see that his decision only stirred troubles and clashes. It's time for him to backtrack, or is he waiting for blood to be spilled?"
The drama took an intriguing twist when Prosecutor-General Mahmoud, a Mubarak holdover who has refused Morsi's order to step aside, threatened to reveal what one judge called "secrets and truths for the first time" about pending murder trials and business deals.
"I'll tell you about what cases are being put in the fridge, the cases of the privatization of [the] public sector," said Mahmoud. "Two-hundred-fifty companies have been privatized, and all complaints against them were sidestepped. ... I sent a memorandum to the president and the Cabinet, and they have not responded to the prosecution."
Abdellatif is a special correspondent.