November 24, 2012
Egyptian Judges Challenge Morsi Over New Power
CAIRO — Egyptian judges rebelled Saturday against an edict by President Mohamed Morsi exempting his decrees from judicial review until ratification of a constitution, denouncing it as a bid for unchecked power and calling for a judges’ strike.
The condemnation came from an array of organizations. The Supreme Council of the Judiciary called the decree “an unprecedented attack on judicial independence” and urged the president to rescind it. A major association of judges, the Judges Club, called for a strike by courts across Egypt. The leader of the national lawyers’ association endorsed the call.
A judicial strike would be the steepest escalation yet in a political struggle between the country’s new Islamist leaders and the institutions of the old authoritarian government over the drafting of a new constitution. Those tensions have flared since Mr. Morsi announced his decree on Thursday, saying he acted to prevent the old-guard courts from dissolving the Constitutional Assembly, as they had dissolved an earlier assembly and the Parliament.
Mr. Morsi said his expanded powers, which he announced a day after he won international praise for helping broker a cease-fire in Gaza, would last only until the new constitution was ratified.
The judges, who were appointed by Egypt’s ousted strongman, Hosni Mubarak, joined liberal and secular political leaders in opposing the decree. Because the court dissolved the Parliament, the judiciary was the last check on his power, and critics called the decree a step toward autocracy.
There were small street protests outside the court building where the judges met. And a coalition of disparate opposition leaders, including the former United Nations diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei and three other former Egyptian presidential candidates, demanded the cancellation of the decree.
The strike call by the Judges Club, which has been led in recent years by a clique loyal to Mr. Mubarak and opposed to the Islamists, followed a vote by a more representative assembly of about 1,000 club members. They urged courts to suspend all activities except those vital to citizens, and it was unclear how individual courts might respond.
State news media reported that judges and prosecutors had already declared a strike in Alexandria, and there were reports of planned walkouts in Qulubiya and Beheira, but those could not be confirmed.
As the Judges Club met in the High Court building, a small crowd of protesters outside chanted that Egypt’s judges were “a red line.” When another group armed with the flares favored by hard-core soccer fans tried to force their way into the building, the police fired tear gas.
Inside, the Mubarak-appointed chief prosecutor, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, declared to a crowd of cheering judges that he rejected Mr. Morsi’s attempt to fire him. He called the presidential decree “null and void” and warned of a “systematic campaign against the country’s institutions in general and the judiciary in particular.” Judges chanted for the “fall of the regime,” reprising the signature rallying cry of the revolt last year against Mr. Mubarak, but this time against Mr. Morsi.
Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer, said he had filed one of several lawsuits asking the courts to attempt to overturn Mr. Morsi’s decree.
The coalition of political opposition leaders, calling their group the National Salvation Front, declared that it would not negotiate with Mr. Morsi about resolving the crisis until he withdrew his decree. “We will not enter into a dialogue about anything while this constitutional declaration remains intact and in force,” said Amr Moussa, one of the leaders and Mr. Mubarak’s former foreign minister. “We demand that it be withdrawn, and then we can talk.”
What set off the battle was the year-end deadline for the Constitutional Assembly chosen last spring to draft a new constitution. There had been rumors that the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised to dissolve the assembly in a ruling next Sunday. Top courts had already dissolved both an earlier Constitutional Assembly and the Parliament. All three bodies were dominated by Islamists, who have prevailed in elections, and many of the top judges harbor deep fears of an Islamist takeover.
As the deadlines loomed in recent weeks, the assembly’s Islamist leaders began to rush the debates. The assembly had already beaten back the efforts of ultraconservative Salafis to significantly expand the role of Islam in government. But in the last two weeks, many members of the non-Islamist minority began complaining of strong-arming and quit the assembly, slowing its deliberations and hurting its credibility.
Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he issued his decree to give the assembly a two-month extension and protect it from judicial dissolution, so that its members could work out compromises and avoid the formation of yet another assembly. His supporters accuse many in the assembly’s non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet in order to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat.
“They are afraid of democracy, really,” Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in an interview this month. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”
Mr. Morsi’s critics say he could have found a less confrontational tactic to achieve his goal. But in denouncing his decree on Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists.
To Mr. Morsi’s supporters, it was a vindication of the theory that judges and the opposition meant to block the assembly’s work entirely. “They are lending weight to his suspicions,” said Mona El-Ghobashy, an Egyptian professor at Barnard who studies both the Brotherhood and the courts.
The increasingly vocal criticism of the assembly threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the ultimate charter, and it has only increased the likelihood that Islamist leaders may seek to pass and ratify it on their own, over the opposition of other groups, further damaging its credibility.
By Saturday morning, young supporters of the opposition parties set up a tent city for an open-ended sit-in in Tahrir Square, the center of the Egyptian revolt, and the groups have called for a demonstration there on Tuesday.
The Muslim Brotherhood has called for rival demonstrations nearby on Sunday and on Tuesday, raising the possibility of street fights between the two sides. Since Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow, the Brotherhood’s rallies have consistently surpassed the size of those called by secular groups.
Near Tahrir Square on Saturday, a few hundred young men engaged in an unrelated battle with the police that has been going on for more than five days. They were demanding retribution against security officers who killed more than 40 people and blinded others with birdshot in clashes a year ago. On Saturday, they continued to throw rocks and occasionally homemade bombs at rows of riot police officers, who retaliated with rocks of their own as well as volleys of tear gas.
The protesters hung a yellow banner across the street declaring “No Entry to the Brotherhood.” They blame the Muslim Brotherhood for failing to back them during last year’s protests.
Most of those protesters appeared unconcerned, if cynical, about Mr. Morsi’s decree, though some approved of his efforts to fire the Mubarak-appointed prosecutor and retry officials previously acquitted of responsibility for the killings. “A drop of honey in a pool of poison,” said Hassan el-Masry, 19, who lost an eye during last year’s clashes.