CAIRO – Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi backed off his decision to replace the nation’s prosecutor general after an outcry Saturday from judges and lawyers accusing the new Islamist leader of tampering with an independent judiciary.
The retreat was a bracing political lesson for Morsi, who is moving to control government institutions still influenced by officials appointed by deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Morsi deftly maneuvered in August to replace Egypt’s top military commander and his deputies, but he encountered defiance in recent days from Prosecutor General Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud.
Egyptian law prevents the president from firing the prosecutor general. Instead, Morsi pressured Mahmoud to accept the role of ambassador to the Vatican. Mahmoud declined and received the backing of judges who supported him Saturday when he showed up for work. That left the president’s staff trying to finesse a way around the embarrassment.
Morsi moved against Mahmoud, an unpopular holdover from an era many Egyptians revile, on Thursday after a court acquitted 24 Mubarak loyalists of plotting an assault on protesters during last year’s uprising. The attack became an international spectacle when camels and horses charged into demonstrators in a desperate attempt to keep Mubarak in power.
Egyptians were outraged at the verdict and over other cases in which Mahmoud didn’t win harsh enough verdicts for those connected to Mubarak and his security forces. Vice President Mahmoud Mekky said Morsi wanted Mahmoud reassigned to protect the reputation of the judiciary. But the president’s critics said he tried to marshal public passion to circumvent the nation’s laws.
The case highlights Morsi’s image problem: He has support to reform public institutions, but many are wary that the new president – a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood – is trying to stack the government with Islamists and tip Egypt toward a religiously conservative state.
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