Egypt’s president appeared on Monday to soften an earlier decision to take on near-absolute power, saying through a spokesman that only some of his acts would be protected from judicial review.
The announcement, a day ahead of planned opposition protests, was aimed at quelling criticism of proclamations President Mohamed Morsi made last week that gave him the power to legislate by decree and without court oversight.
But the spokesman’s explanation that only “acts of sovereignty” are immune from courtroom appeal did not immediately satisfy an unlikely coalition of secular forces that has emerged against what its members say is the most serious threat to Egypt’s fragile democracy since the country toppled its autocratic ruler almost two years ago.
The White House declined on Monday to criticize Morsi’s move, conveying “concerns” but emphasizing American gratitude for Egypt’s role last week in brokering a fragile cease-fire between Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Israel. Spokesman Jay Carney said that Egypt’s path to democracy was not “perfectly smooth.”
The absence of strong U.S. opposition to Morsi’s assumption of almost total control over his country was itself rapidly becoming a political issue in Egypt on Monday. Opposition figures suggested that the United States was allowing Egypt’s first democratically elected leader to do what he wished domestically as long as he was a strong partner abroad in working toward a truce between Palestinians and Israelis.
U.S. officials said that they had a degree of trust in Morsi’s motives. Although the proclamations appeared undemocratic and thus could not win any overt American support, they were born of internal political problems that Egyptians must settle for themselves, said an Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
Negotiations on the Gaza conflict resumed Monday, but the rapid-fire domestic developments distracted from solidifying what remains a fragile truce.
The late-night explanation on Egyptian state television that Morsi’s powers would not be completely unlimited appeared to be the beginning of political negotiations, not an endpoint, experts said. Many in the opposition quickly said that in their view, little had changed. Morsi spokesman Yasser Ali did not amend the Thursday decrees; he simply said he was clarifying them.
An unusual alliance of liberal secular forces and defenders of the autocratic rule of former president Hosni Mubarak has emerged in recent days to fight Morsi’s decision to take on untrammeled power. The country’s judges association said Monday that the explanation had no legal force and that the group would continue to call for strikes among judges and prosecutors. Other political figures repeated calls to hold protests Tuesday. With political Islamists largely backing Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood ally, the edicts have quickly polarized the country along religious lines.
‘A slippery legal concept’
Analysts said Monday that the announcement that Morsi’s power may have some bounds did not necessarily have immediate practical consequences.
“It has to be politically worked out. It’s clearly a way for Morsi to preserve what he really wanted plus to save face,” said Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University who is an expert on Egypt’s legal system.
The move, if it were given legal weight, would confine Morsi’s courtroom immunity to decisions in which he is acting on behalf of the entire nation — such as going to war and signing treaties. But leaders in the region have also used such power on behalf of national security, which can be broadened to encompass far more.
The distinction “has been a slippery legal concept, because authoritarian rulers have used it in the Arab world to get away with almost anything in the last half-century,” Brown said.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Nour party, formed by Salafists, called off a rally planned for Tuesday in support of the president, who won June elections with 52 percent of the vote, saying they were worried about the potential for clashes with those who oppose him. That appeared to be another attempt to calm tempers. A Nour spokesman said on Twitter that his party wanted to “avoid bloodshed.”
Morsi met with the country’s top administrative body for courts on Monday to discuss the measures. That body, the Supreme Judicial Council, had said late Sunday that judges should not go on strike. On Monday, there were scattered courtroom strikes around the country, according to local news reports.
U.S. silence questioned
Morsi announced his decrees Thursday, framing them as an attempt to preserve the democratic gains of the revolution and to counter Mubarak sympathizers among the judiciary. Many Mubarak-era figures have been acquitted or received light sentences on charges of corruption and abuses.
He also announced that the Islamist-dominated body writing a new constitution could not be dismissed by courts, something that Egypt’s constitutional court had apparently been threatening to do.
Morsi already had effective legislative power because the constitutional court dismissed Egypt’s parliament shortly before he was elected. In August, he sidelined Egypt’s once-powerful military by sacking its longtime leaders and taking away many of its powers.
The general absence of strong international condemnation of last week’s move was making many liberal Egyptians who oppose Morsi question the United States’ commitment to democratic ideals. On Sunday, protesters threw rocks at riot police outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, some of them going over the walls of the compound.
“It’s clearly the cease-fire that led to American silence on this,” said Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. “But it’s very shortsighted of the U.S.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been taken by surprise by the decision and spoke by phone on Monday with Egypt’s foreign minister about the unfolding political confrontation, as well as about the progress of talks on Gaza, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Nuland declined to endorse Morsi’s assurances that he is not making a permanent power grab. She would not rule out a future docking of U.S. aid. And she said that Clinton, who visited Morsi in Cairo to broker the Gaza cease-fire the day before he announced the measures, “did not have any forewarning of this decree.”
“These moves raised concerns not only in Egypt, they raised concerns in the international community about the way forward here,” Nuland said.