CAIRO – Prominent Egyptian democracy advocate Mohammed ElBaradei warned Saturday of increasing turmoil that could potentially lead to the military stepping in unless the Islamist president rescinds his new, near absolute powers, while the country’s long fragmented opposition sought to unite and rally new protests.
Egypt’s liberal and secular forces – long divided, weakened and uncertain amid the rise of Islamist parties to power – are seeking to rally themselves in response to the decrees issued this week by President Mohammed Morsi. The president granted himself sweeping powers to “protect the revolution” and made himself immune to judicial oversight.
The judiciary, which was the main target of Morsi’s edicts, pushed back Saturday. The country’s highest body of judges, the Supreme Judical Council, called his decrees an “unprecedented assault.” Courts in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria announced a work suspension until the decrees are lifted.
Outside the high court building in Cairo, several hundred demonstrators rallied against Morsi, chanting, “Leave! Leave!” echoing the slogan used against former leader Hosni Mubarak in last year’s uprising that ousted him. Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of young men who were shooting flares outside the court.
The edicts issued Wednesday have galvanized anger brewing against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, ever since he took office in June as Egypt’s first freely elected president. Critics accuse the Brotherhood – which has dominated elections the past year – and other Islamists of monopolizing power and doing little to bring real reform or address Egypt’s mounting economic and security woes.
Oppositon groups have called for new nationwide rallies Tuesday – and the Muslim Brotherhood has called for rallies supporting Morsi the same day, setting the stage for new violence.
Morsi supporters counter that the edicts were necessary to prevent the courts, which already dissolved the elected lower house of parliament, from further holding up moves to stability by disbanding the assembly writing the new constitution, as judges were considering doing.
Like parliament was, the assembly is dominated by Islamists. Morsi accuses Mubarak loyalists in the judiciary of seeking to thwart the revolution’s goals and barred the judiciary from disbanding the constitutional assembly or parliament’s upper house.
In an interview with a handful of journalists, including The Associated Press, Nobel Peace laureate ElBaradei raised alarm over the impact of Morsi’s rulings, saying he had become “a new pharaoh.”
“There is a good deal of anger, chaos, confusion. Violence is spreading to many places and state authority is starting to erode slowly,” he said. “We hope that we can manage to do a smooth transition without plunging the country into a cycle of violence. But I don’t see this happening without Mr. Morsi rescinding all of this.”
Speaking of Egypt’s powerful military, ElBaradei said, “I am sure they are as worried as everyone else. You cannot exclude that the army will intervene to restore law and order” if the situation gets out of hand.
But anti-Morsi factions are chronically divided, with revolutionary youth activists, new liberal political parties that have struggled to build a public base and figures from the Mubarak era, all of whom distrust each other. The judiciary is also an uncomfortable cause for some to back, since it includes many Mubarak appointees who even Morsi opponents criticize as too tied to the old regime.
Opponents say the edicts gave Morsi near dictatorial powers, neutering the judiciary when he already holds both executive and legislative powers. One of his most controversial edicts gave him the right to take any steps to stop “threats to the revolution,” vague wording that activists say harkens back to Mubarak-era emergency laws.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in nationwide protests on Friday, sparking clashes between anti-and pro-Morsi crowds in several cities that left more than 200 people wounded.
On Saturday, new clashed broke out in the southern city of Assiut. Morsi opponents and members of the Muslim Brotherhood swung sticks and threw stones at each other outside the offices of the Brotherhood’s political party, leaving at least seven injured.
ElBaradei and a six other prominent liberal leaders have announced the formation of a National Salvation Front aimed at rallying all non-Islamist groups together to force Morsi to rescind his edicts.
The National Salvation Front leadership includes several who ran against Morsi in this year’s presidential race – Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished a close third, former foreign minister Amr Moussa and moderate Islamist Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh. ElBaradei says the group is also pushing for the creation of a new constitutional assembly and a unity government.
ElBaradei said it would be a long process to persuade Morsi that he “cannot get away with murder.”
“There is no middle ground, no dialogue before he rescinds this declaration. There is no room for dialogue until then.”
The grouping seems to represent a newly assertive political foray by ElBaradei, the former chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency. ElBaradei returned to Egypt in the year before Mubarak’s fall, speaking out against his rule, and was influential with many of the youth groups that launched the anti-Mubarak revolution.
But since Mubarak’s fall, he has been criticized by some as too Westernized, elite and Hamlet-ish, reluctant to fully assert himself as an opposition leader.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice political party, once headed by Morsi, said Saturday in a statement that the president’s decision protects the revolution against former regime figures who have tried to erode elected institutions and were threatening to dissolve the constitutional assembly.
The Brotherhood warned in another statement that there were forces trying to overthrow the elected president in order to return to power. It said Morsi has a mandate to lead, having defeated one of Mubarak’s former prime ministers this summer in a closely contested election.
Morsi’s edicts also removed Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, the prosecutor general first appointed by Mubarak, who many Egyptians accused of not prosecuting former regime figures strongly enough.
Speaking to a gathering of judges cheering support for him at the high court building in Cairo, Mahmoud warned of a “vicious campaign” against state institutions. He also said judicial authorities are looking into the legality of the decision to remove him — setting up a Catch-22 of legitimacy, since under Morsi’s decree, the courts cannot overturn any of his decisions.
“I thank you for your support of judicial independence,” he told the judges.
“Morsi will have to reverse his decision to avoid the anger of the people,” said Ahmed Badrawy, a labor ministry employee protesting at the courthouse. “We do not want to have an Iranian system here,” he added, referring to fears that hardcore Islamists may try to turn Egypt into a theocracy.
Several hundred protesters remained in Cairo’s Tahrir Square Saturday, where a number of tents have been erected in a sit-in following nearly a week of clashes with riot police.