The absolute-power decree issued Thursday has exacerbated anger already brewing against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, ever since he took office in June as Egypt's first freely elected president.
CAIRO — Prominent Egyptian democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei warned Saturday of increasing turmoil that could lead to the military stepping in unless the Islamist president rescinds his new, near absolute powers.
The country’s long fragmented opposition, meanwhile, sought to unite and inspire new protests. Egypt’s liberal and secular forces — long divided, weakened and uncertain amid the rise of Islamist parties — are seeking to rally in response to the decree issued last week by President Mohammed Morsi. The president granted himself sweeping powers to “protect the revolution” and made himself immune to judicial oversight.
The judiciary, the main target of Morsi’s edict, pushed back Saturday. The country’s highest body of judges, the Supreme Judical Council, called his decree an “unprecedented assault,” and called for courts nationwide to suspend all but their most vital activities in protest.
State news media reported that judges and prosecutors had walked out in Alexandria, and there were other news reports of walkouts in Qulubiya and Beheira, but those could not be confirmed.
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Outside the high-court building in Cairo, several hundred demonstrators rallied against Morsi on Saturday, chanting, “Leave! Leave!” echoing the slogan used against former leader Hosni Mubarak in last year’s uprising that ousted him. Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of young men who were shooting flares outside the court.
The decree issued Thursday has exacerbated anger already brewing against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, ever since he took office in June as Egypt’s first freely elected president. Critics accuse the Brotherhood — which has dominated elections the past year — and other Islamists of monopolizing power and doing little to bring real change or address Egypt’s mounting economic and security woes.
Morsi supporters said his decree was necessary to prevent the courts, which had dissolved the elected lower house of Parliament, from disbanding the assembly writing the new constitution. Like Parliament, the assembly is dominated by Islamists.
Morsi accuses Mubarak loyalists in the judiciary of seeking to thwart the revolution’s goals and barred the judiciary from disbanding the constitutional assembly, or Parliament’s upper house.
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, likely next year.
In an interview, ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate, raised alarm over the impact of Morsi’s rulings, saying he had become “a new pharaoh.”
“There is a good deal of anger, chaos, confusion. Violence is spreading to many places and state authority is starting to erode slowly,” he said. “We hope that we can manage to do a smooth transition without plunging the country into a cycle of violence. But I don’t see this happening without Mr. Morsi rescinding all of this.”
Speaking of Egypt’s powerful military, ElBaradei said: “You cannot exclude that the army will intervene to restore law and order” if the situation gets out of hand.
Anti-Morsi factions are divided. They are made up of revolutionary youth activists, new liberal political parties that have struggled to build a public base and figures from the Mubarak era, and all distrust each other. The judiciary is also an uncomfortable cause for some to back, since it includes many Mubarak appointees even Morsi opponents criticize.
Morsi opponents say the decree gave him near dictatorial powers, neutering the judiciary when he already holds executive and legislative powers.
One of his most controversial moves gave him the right to take any steps to stop “threats to the revolution,” wording that activists say recalls Mubarak-era emergency laws.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in nationwide protests Friday, sparking clashes between anti- and pro-Morsi crowds in several cities that left more than 200 people wounded.
On Saturday, new clashes also erupted in the southern city of Assiut. Morsi opponents and members of the Muslim Brotherhood swung sticks and threw stones outside the offices of the Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, leaving at least seven injured.
ElBaradei and six other prominent liberal leaders announced the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at rallying all non-Islamist groups together to force Morsi to rescind his decree.
The National Salvation Front leadership includes several who ran against Morsi in this year’s presidential race: Hamdeen Sabahi; former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa; and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh. ElBaradei says the group is also pushing for the creation of a new constitutional assembly and a unity government.
In addition to demanding the dissolution of the constitutional assembly, the group said it would not speak with Morsi until he withdrew his decree. “We will not enter into a dialogue about anything while this constitutional declaration remains intact and in force,” Moussa said.
ElBaradei said it would be a long process to persuade Morsi he “cannot get away with murder.”
“There is no middle ground, no dialogue before he rescinds this declaration. There is no room for dialogue until then.”
The Freedom and Justice Party, once headed by Morsi, said Saturday that the president’s decision protects the revolution from former government figures who have tried to erode elected institutions and were threatening to dissolve the constitutional assembly.
Morsi’s declaration also removed Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, the prosecutor general first appointed by Mubarak.
Mahmoud told a crowd of cheering judges at the high-court building in Cairo that the presidential decree was “null and void.”
Several hundred protesters remained in Cairo’s Tahrir Square late Saturday, where a number of tents were erected.
Material from The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.