CAIRO – Security forces built a wall to contain stone-throwing protesters and Egypt’s stock market tumbled Sunday as unrest grew over President Mohammed Morsi’s decision to expand his powers in a nation dispirited and angered by months of uncertainty.
The country’s main stock index fell nearly 10 percent in one of the most bruising days of trading since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak. Morsi’s power grab left traders fearful that foreign investors – desperately needed to rescue Egypt’s troubled economy – would shy away from the latest spasm of political instability.
“The market is witnessing one of its worst moments in history. The current regime is a mirror image of the previous one,” Hisham Tawfik, an executive board member on the Egyptian stock exchange, told Al Masry al Youm newspaper. The government, he said, has continued to “ignore the concerns of investors.”
In an effort to calm widening furor, Morsi’s office released a statement later in the day that was at once conciliatory and adamant even as his justice minister questioned the wisdom of the decree at such a politically sensitive time. The statement said the president has a “firm commitment to engage all political forces … and bridge the gap in order to reach a national consensus.”
That did not deter thousands of protesters from converging on Tahrir Square. Hundreds more, mostly young men and boys, their faces covered by rags to shield them from tear gas, battled with police on side streets as cranes lifted blocks into place for a dividing wall.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party said one of its members was killed when anti-Morsi protesters attacked one of its offices outside of Alexandria. The state news agency reported that 297 people have been injured in days of demonstrations.
Pressure on Morsi, the nation’s first Islamist president, has intensified since Thursday when he announced his office was above judicial oversight. He had earlier taken over broad executive and legislative authority and the latest move left his powers unchecked.
Judges have threatened a national strike. Some courts have stopped working in Alexandria and other cities. Leading opposition figures, including Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, have warned that if Morsi doesn’t rescind his decree, the country could slide into violence.
But, so far, the strikes and crowds of protesters do not appear large enough or possess the momentum to threaten Morsi’s power. The Supreme Judicial Council, the leading judges’ authority, opposes the president’s decree but advised its members not to strike. Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki was seeking a compromise, and Morsi was expected to meet with judges in coming days.
The president has explained his decree as an attempt to limit the influence of Mubarak-era judges who have threatened the nation’s political transition. His statement Sunday said his move was not “intended to concentrate power, but to avoid … attempts to undermine democratically elected bodies and preserve the impartiality of the judiciary.”
In June, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the Islamist-led parliament. Morsi feared the judges would do the same next month in a case to decide the fate of the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting the constitution. Secularists, women and non-Muslims have accused the assembly of seeking to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, at the expense of civil rights.
While anti-Morsi protesters chanted against him in Tahrir Square, legions of Islamists, including members of Morsi’s dominant Muslim Brotherhood, backed the president. The nation is increasingly torn, and the president, a political novice whose Brotherhood party is known for its authoritarian streak, has yet to placate those calling him a dictator and a pharaoh.