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Egypt president meets judges, fails to 'contain crisis'

Mohamed Morsi says he will cut back on the broad powers he assumed last week, but his offers do not go far enough for the judges. Unrest continues.

November 27, 2012|By Jeffrey Fleishman and Reem Abdellatif, Los Angeles Times
  • Mourners and activists walk with the coffin of Gaber Salah, who died overnight after he was injured in clashes near Cairo's Tahrir Square last week.
Mourners and activists walk with the coffin of Gaber Salah, who died overnight… (Gianluigi Guercia, AFP/Getty…)

CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi suggested Monday that he would scale back broad powers he assumed last week but failed to appease Egypt's judiciary, which would still lack oversight of some institutions including the Islamist-led assembly drafting a new constitution.

Morsi and senior judges met for nearly five hours to discuss differences resulting from the president's declaration that his office was free from judicial review. Morsi told judges that the decree was meant to be temporary, and mainly aimed at shielding the long-troubled constitutional assembly from any judicial attempt to disband it.

Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said after the meeting that Morsi's decree was not designed to "infringe" on the judiciary, suggesting not all of the president's actions would be immune from court review. The Supreme Judicial Council on Saturday condemned Morsi's expanded powers as an "unprecedented attack" on the courts. And Monday's talks did not seem to soften the sentiment of some council members.

"Our meeting with the president has failed to contain the crisis," Abdelrahman Bahloul, a member of the judicial council, told the newspaper Al Masry al Youm. "The statement issued by the presidency is frail and does not represent the members of the council."

The Judges Club, a separate legal organization, also was not satisfied that Morsi had scaled back enough of his authority. It called on its members to continue a partial strike in Alexandria and other cities. Ziad Akl, a political analyst, said Morsi's negotiations with the judges were a move to show the public he's not a dictator, "but, in reality, his declaration has not changed."

The talks in the presidential palace did not stop anti-Morsi demonstrations in Tahrir Square on Monday. But in a sign tensions may be easing, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Morsi helped lead until his inauguration in June, announced it was canceling a scheduled demonstration Tuesday to avoid bloodshed and possible clashes with Morsi opponents.

The consequences of the nation's restiveness played out as Morsi and the judges met Monday, with mourners turning out to bury two boys from opposite political sides who were killed in recent clashes: a 16-year-old antigovernment protester reportedly shot with a rubber bullet near Tahrir Square and a 15-year-old struck by a stone when a crowd attacked an office of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in the Nile Delta.

"The presidency mourns two of the nation's finest young men," Morsi said in a statement.

But the images of two funerals made it clear that Morsi and the Brotherhood, although still Egypt's dominant political forces, miscalculated the depth of public anger that has bristled since last year's overthrow of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and subsequent government setbacks, including judicial action disbanding the Islamist-led parliament.

Last month, Morsi, who for months has held wide executive and legislative powers, attempted to fire Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, only to retreat after a backlash from judges. His most recent decree to hold his office above judicial oversight struck many as another ill-conceived bid to consolidate his authority and advance an Islamist agenda.

Morsi contended that his intent was to prevent Mubarak-era judges from disrupting the country's political transition. Many Egyptians, including opposition figures, are suspicious of the courts, Mahmoud in particular. But Morsi's unilateral decree echoed the strongman tactics of his predecessor.

One of the president's biggest challenges is to protect the assembly drafting the constitution, which will open the way for new parliamentary elections. In June, the Supreme Constitutional Court, made up mostly of Mubarak-appointed judges, dissolved parliament. The court has since been deciding the fate of the Islamist-led assembly, which Morsi feared would also be disbanded.

Activists, liberals, women and non-Muslims have boycotted the assembly, saying that it is too focused on sharia, or Islamic law, which could limit civil rights. Protesters in Tahrir Square said they will continue their demonstrations until Morsi retracts more of his power.

Jaber Nassar, a legal expert quoted on state TV, said Morsi's meeting with the judges showed that he remains adamant on keeping broad authority. He called Morsi's announcement Monday "simply a political statement meant to curb protests against" his decree.

Abdellatif is a special correspondent.

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