Egypt’s president negotiated with judges yesterday to try to defuse a crisis over his seizure of extended powers which set off violent protests reminiscent of the uprising that thrust his Islamist movement into power.
The justice minister said he thought Mohammed Morsi would agree with a proposal from the highest judicial authority to curb the scope of new powers. Morsi was “very optimistic Egyptians would overcome the crisis”, his spokesman said.
But the protesters, some camped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, have said only retracting the decree will satisfy them, a sign of the deep rift between Islamists and their opponents that is destabilising Egypt nearly two years after Hosni Mubarak fell.
One person has been killed and about 370 injured in clashes between police and protesters since Morsi issued a decree on Thursday shielding his decisions from judicial review, emboldened by international plaudits for brokering an end to eight days of violence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Morsi’s political opponents have accused him of behaving like a dictator and the West has voiced its concern, worried by more turbulence in a country that has a peace treaty with Israel and lies at the heart of the Arab Spring.
Morsi’s administration has defended his decree as an effort to speed up reforms and complete a democratic transformation. Leftists, liberals, socialists, and others say it has exposed the autocratic impulses of a man once jailed by Mubarak.
Morsi’s opponents have called for a protest today and leading leftist, Hamdeen Sabahy, vowed peaceful demonstrations would continue until the decree was “brought down”, saying Tahrir would be a model of an “Egypt that will not accept a new dictator because it brought down the old one”.
In a bid to lower tensions, the Muslim Brotherhood delayed its rival protest in support of Morsi that it had planned for today.
“President Morsi is very optimistic that Egyptians will overcome this challenge as they have overcome other challenges,” presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters, shortly before the president held his meeting with members of Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council.
The council has hinted at a compromise, saying Morsi’s decree should apply only to “sovereign matters”. That suggests it did not reject the declaration outright. Legal experts said “sovereign matters” could be confined to issues such as declaring war or calling elections that are already beyond legal challenge.
But they said Egypt’s legal system had sometimes used the term more broadly, suggesting that any deal could leave wide room for interpretation.
A group of lawyers and activists has also challenged Morsi’s decree in an administrative court, which said it would hold its first hearing on Dec 4.
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