After days of protests, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced Monday that a sweeping decree issued last week that exempted his decisions from challenges in court will remain in effect on issues pertaining to “sovereign matters,” a result that some were calling a compromise but that appeared to be a sweeping victory for the Islamist president.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the organization through which Morsi gained prominence before his election to the presidency this summer, canceled demonstrations that were scheduled for Tuesday to support the president’s decree, which had been assailed by secular political leaders and judges alike as giving Morsi dictatorial powers. However, massive anti-Morsi protests are scheduled for Tuesday.
There was no immediate comment from the country’s Supreme Judicial Council, which had met with Morsi earlier in the day. The continuation of the decree was announced on national television late Monday by Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, who cast it as an agreement between the two sides.
Among the decree’s aspects that will remain in effect is the reopening of investigations into a range of crimes committed against demonstrators during the final days of the regime of toppled President Hosni Mubarak if “ample evidence” exists that former officials have been allowed to go free unjustly.
There was no definition of what constitutes a “sovereign matter,” leaving open the possibility of continued debate. But that seemed a remote possibility given that the term could apply to nearly any action the president might take, particularly in regard to the writing of the country’s new constitution.
"The president and the Supreme Judicial Council confirmed their desire for no conflict or difference between the judicial and presidential authorities," Ali said in announcing the continuation of the decree.
Despite the agreement, many in Cairo said that public feuds like the one where thousands protested Morsi’s latest power grab would define Egypt for the immediate future. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood canceled its call for demonstrations, those opposed to Morsi’s policies planned to take to the streets.
Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, a leading force in the uprising, is among those who wanted to see tweaks in the latest decree.
“From the first day he was president, we said we wouldn’t leave. And he himself said, ‘If I do something wrong, correct me,’” Maher said. “We represent a great segment of Egyptians.”
One key divide unsettled by the agreement announced Monday is likely to roil Egyptian politics for some time: How much accountability does a democratically elected president owe his constituents? Where protests of the past days demanded that Morsi answer to the courts and explain his decisions to the public, his supporters believe that Morsi is accountable to the voters only when he faces re-election. What happens in between every four years is up to Morsi.
It is even dividing his advisers. According to state television, two of Morsi’s advisers, including a leading Christian, resigned to protest Morsi’s decree, saying he did not consult with them before giving himself new powers, though the president has not accepted their resignations. The judiciary called the moves unprecedented, and even Morsi’s minister of justice struggled to defend the move. In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Egypt’s foreign minister, Mohammed Kamel Amr, with whom she stood days earlier as they announced a cease-fire in Gaza, to question the decree. A State Department spokeswoman called the situation in Egypt “murky.”
But Morsi also could count on Mohamed Fahmy, 23, a communications student who fumed as he watched thousands of anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square. He said he was outraged at Egyptians who tried to thwart Morsi’s efforts to govern.
"Those people want a president every day. They need someone like (ousted Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak. Those people need a whip," Fahmy said. "We should give him a chance. They want everything to change overnight."
Fahmy believes that if people don’t like what Morsi is doing, they will have their chance – the next time the country elects a president.
Opponents say Morsi’s decree was to make certain that the courts could not dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constitutional assembly and the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament.
If those were his goals, then the agreement with the judges was definitely a Morsi victory.
Under the agreement, no court may dissolve the constituent assembly or the upper house of Parliament, according to Ali’s announcement.
The agreement also said that none of Morsi’s executive orders issued since June 30, 2012, can be abrogated by the courts, and “all suits launched against them are hereby dismissed.”
The constituent assembly also was granted an extra two months to finish drafting the constitution, a key Morsi position. The president was also given authority to “take any steps he feels necessary to preserve the revolution, or national unity, or the country’s security.”
One of the agreement’s most controversial points provides for the reinvestigation of “all officials of the Mubarak regime who were implicated in violence against protesters.” That is certain to mean new trials against many Mubarak security officials who were acquitted in recent months.
Special correspondent Amina Ismail in Cairo contributed to this report.