CAIRO – Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi expanded his authority Thursday in a startling power grab that weakens the courts and frees him from judicial oversight amid deepening political intrigue in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The Islamist president’s bold gesture came the day after he was praised for negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Thursday’s move effectively makes Morsi, who already holds executive and legislative powers, the ultimate force in a country that has no parliament and has yet to draft a new constitution.
The decree, which still could be challenged by the Supreme Constitutional Court, extends immunity to the Islamist-led assembly writing the constitution. The court has been reviewing whether to dissolve the body over legitimacy questions. But Morsi’s decision appears to protect from judicial oversight the assembly that secularists accuse of wanting to impose Sharia law.
“Morsi today usurped all state powers (and) appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh,” Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and reformist, posted on his Twitter account. The timing of Morsi’s decision suggested that he was looking to calm violent protests against the state for not bringing security forces to justice in the deaths of demonstrators over the last year. After announcing the decree, Morsi ordered a retrial for toppled leader Hosni Mubarak, whose life sentence for his role in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising was seen by many Egyptians as too lenient.
New trials also were ordered for other former top officials. Morsi fired Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak-era holdover often criticized for not aggressively pursuing members of the old regime. The president tried to get rid of Mahmoud last month but relented, if embarrassed, after an uproar from judges criticizing him for maneuvering to silence an independent judiciary.
Morsi’s strategy in recent months has been to marginalize the courts. Morsi views the judiciary, which this year disbanded the Islamist-led parliament, as disrupting the country’s transition to democracy.
But civil rights advocates argue that Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party are weakening state institutions to broaden their power. Morsi’s decree means that all actions he takes in office until a constitution is approved are not subject to legal review.
On Thursday night, dueling protests marked the nation’s political intrigue and divide. Muslim Brotherhood members chanted in front of the main court building in downtown Cairo demanding that Morsi “purify” the judiciary. Meanwhile, protesters in nearby Tahrir Square held up pictures depicting Morsi as half himself and half Mubarak.
“Morsi’s decision is an attempt to completely control the state powers, which shows the world that Egypt is still in political turmoil and instability,” said Nabil Abdelfattah, a legal expert with the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “He became the ruler of everything, his hold on legislative and executive powers is completely dangerous and unacceptable.
“The Supreme Constitutional Court will rule this decree as unconstitutional.”