CAIRO – Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi struck an uncompromising stand Monday over his seizure of near-absolute powers, refusing in a meeting with top judicial authorities to rescind a package of constitutional amendments that placed his edicts above oversight by the courts.
Morsi’s supporters, meanwhile, canceled a massive rally planned for today to compete with a demonstration by his opponents, citing the need to “defuse tension” at a time when anger over the president’s moves is mounting, according to a spokesman for the president’s Muslim Brotherhood.
The opposition rally was going ahead as scheduled at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak’s regime nearly two years ago.
The meeting between Morsi and members of the Supreme Judiciary Council was a bid to resolve a four-day crisis that has plunged the country into a new round of turmoil, with clashes between the two sides that have left one protester dead and hundreds wounded.
Morsi, according to a presidential statement, told the judges that while the constitutional declaration he announced Thursday grants him immunity from any oversight, he intended to restrict that to what it described as “sovereignty issues.”
The vaguely worded statement did not define those issues, but they were widely interpreted to cover declaration of war, imposition of martial law, breaking diplomatic relations with a foreign nation or dismissing a Cabinet.
The statement did not touch on the protection from oversight Morsi has extended to two bodies dominated by his Brotherhood and other Islamists: the 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution and parliament’s mostly toothless lower chamber, or the Shura Council.
The Shura Council does not have lawmaking authorities but, in the absence of the more powerful lower chamber, the People’s Assembly, it is the only popularly elected body where the Brotherhood and other Islamists have a majority. The People’s Assembly was dissolved by a court ruling in June.
The judiciary has pushed back, calling the decrees a power grab and an “assault” on the branch’s independence. Judges and prosecutors stayed away from many courts in Cairo and elsewhere on Sunday and Monday.
A spokesman, Yasser Ali, said Morsi told the judges that he acted within his rights as the nation’s sole source of legislation, assuring them that the decrees were temporary and did not in any way infringe on the judiciary.
Two prominent rights lawyers – Gamal Eid and Ahmed Ragheb – dismissed Ali’s remarks.
Eid said they were designed to keep “Morsi above the law,” while Ragheb said they amounted to “playing with words.”
“This is not what Egyptians are objecting to and protesting about,” Ragheb said. “If the president wanted to resolve the crisis, there should be an amendment to his constitutional declaration.”
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday by telephone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr to “register American concerns about Egypt’s political situation,” according to spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Clinton stressed that the U.S. wanted to “see the constitutional process move forward in a way that does not overly concentrate power in one set of hands, that ensures that rule of law, checks and balances, protection of the rights of all groups in Egypt are upheld,” Nuland said.
Morsi’s aides have repeatedly emphasized that the president has no intention of amending his decrees, meaning the near-absolute powers they give him will stand.