The mood in Cairo was tense Monday as Egypt, fresh from an encouraging success on the international stage, plunged headfirst into a thorny domestic dispute.
President Mohamed Morsi is at the center of this controversy, and he may be in it for the long haul after sitting down for heated talks with high-level judges on Monday.
Just after winning plaudits for presiding over a hard-won ceasefire agreement between Israel and Gaza Strip militants, Morsi cashed in – and then some – on the global goodwill by issuing a sudden decree on Thursday to severely limit the power of the Egyptian judiciary, and grab it for himself.
Morsi, a moderate Islamist representing the Muslim Brotherhood, claimed that he was protecting the aims of the 2011 revolution. But critics said the far-reaching edict amounted to a dictatorial seizure of power.
In the wake of the announcement, three of the president’s top advisers resigned. Violent protests quickly broke out on the streets of Cairo, and clashes continue; one person has been killed so far, and hundreds more have been injured. The Egyptian benchmark stock index crashed nearly 10 percent on Sunday, a loss amounting to about $5 billion.
The president is now in talks with the country’s Supreme Judicial Council, whose members hope to convince Morsi to water down his decree.
On Monday, Morsi's justice minister, Ahmed Mekki – who is playing the role of mediator between the executive and judiciary branches – said a compromise was “imminent” as the president prepared to meet with the disgruntled judges.
But hours later, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters Morsi had merely assured the judges that his decree would not unduly infringe on their powers, and that it was necessary to enable the long-awaited drafting of a permanent national constitution.
Morsi has a point there; the Egyptian courts have certainly been a meddlesome presence on the road to a stable democracy. In April, judges disbanded the original assembly appointed to draft the constitution. And in June, just before Morsi won the presidential election, the courts decided that the sitting parliament had been elected illegally, and the lower house was summarily disbanded.
The upper house of parliament is still sitting, and a new constitutional assembly has been formed. Members are working to draft the document Egypt so desperately needs, but progress is slowed by concerns that the assembly, which is dominated by Islamists, will deliver a constitution that fails to protect the rights of women, secularists and religious minorities.
Morsi’s supporters argue that the assembly was appointed by politicians who were fairly and freely elected, and that the members –- who are mostly Islamists but include some women and Christians –- should be allowed to complete their demanding task.
Morsi himself fanned the flames this weekend, citing rumors that senior judges –- many of them appointed during the 30-year reign of former President Hosni Mubarak -- had been gearing up to disband the assembly in the coming weeks. The president vowed to expose any judges who were acting out of loyalty to the old secular regime.
Morsi’s decree, translated into English here by the official Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, essentially removes judicial checks on the president’s power and protects the sitting members of parliament.
“No judicial body can dissolve the Shura Council [upper house of parliament] or the Constituent Assembly,” it says, adding more vaguely that “the President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution.”
Morsi argues that this will allow the drafters of the constitution to work in peace, without threat of dissolution. He also assured critics that the move was temporary, and in no way meant to consolidate power in the executive branch.
But in a country where blood was spilled only last year to unseat the dictator Mubarak, promises like those aren’t going over too well.
“In his head, the president thought that this would push us forward, but then it was met with all this inflammation,” said Mekki before Monday’s meeting, according to the New York Times.
“I blame all of Egypt, because they do not know how to talk to each other.”