CAIRO – Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi struck an uncompromising stand Monday over his seizure of near absolute powers, refusing in a meeting with top judicial authorities to rescind a package of constitutional amendments that placed his edicts above oversight by the courts.
Morsi's supporters, meanwhile, canceled a massive rally planned for Tuesday to compete with a demonstration by his opponents, citing the need to "defuse tension" at a time when anger over the president's moves is mounting, according to a spokesman for the president's Muslim Brotherhood.
The opposition rally was going ahead as scheduled at Cairo's Tahrir square, birthplace of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime nearly two years ago.
The meeting between Morsi and members of the Supreme Judiciary Council was a bid to resolve a four-day crisis that has plunged the country into a new round of turmoil, with clashes between the two sides that have left one protester dead and hundreds wounded.
Morsi, according to a presidential statement, told the judges that while the constitutional declaration he announced Thursday grants him immunity from any oversight, he intended to restrict that to what it described as "sovereignty issues."
The vaguely worded statement did not define those issues, but they were widely interpreted to cover declaration of war, imposition of martial law, breaking diplomatic relations with a foreign nation or dismissing a Cabinet.
The statement did not touch on the protection from oversight Morsi has extended to two bodies dominated by his Brotherhood and other Islamists: The 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution and parliament's mostly toothless lower chamber, or the Shura council.
The Shura Council does not have lawmaking authorities but, in the absence of the more powerful lower chamber, the People's Assembly, it is the only popularly elected body where the Brotherhood and other Islamists have a majority. The People's Assembly was dissolved by a court ruling in June.
The judiciary has pushed back, calling the decrees a power grab and an "assault" on the branch's independence. Judges and prosecutors stayed away from many courts in Cairo and elsewhere on Sunday and Monday.
A spokesman, Yasser Ali, said Morsi told the judges that he acted within his rights as the nation's sole source of legislation, assuring them that the decrees were temporary and did not in any way infringe on the judiciary.
Two prominent rights lawyers — Gamal Eid and Ahmed Ragheb — dismissed Ali's remarks.
Eid said they were designed to keep "Morsi above the law," while Ragheb said they amounted to "playing with words."
"This is not what Egyptians are objecting to and protesting about," Ragheb said. "If the president wanted to resolve the crisis, there should be an amendment to his constitutional declaration."
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday by telephone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr to "register American concerns about Egypt's political situation," according to spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Clinton stressed that the U.S. wanted to "see the constitutional process move forward in a way that does not overly concentrate power in one set of hands, that ensures that rule of law, checks and balances, protection of the rights of all groups in Egypt are upheld," Nuland said.
Morsi's aides have repeatedly emphasized that the president has no intention of amending his decrees, meaning the near absolute powers they give him will stand. Morsi also issued a law to "protect the revolution" that rights activists maintain is effectively a declaration of emergency laws designed to combat poorly defined threats to the nation or to public order.
Opposition activists have denounced Morsi's decrees as a blatant power grab, and refused to enter a dialogue with the president before the edicts are rescinded.
Morsi says he wants to retain the new powers until the new constitution is adopted in a nationwide referendum and parliamentary elections are held, a time line that stretches to the middle of next year.
Many members of the judiciary were appointed under Mubarak, drawing allegations, even by some of Morsi's critics, that they are trying to perpetuate the regime's corrupt practices. But opponents are angry that the decrees leave Morsi without any check on his power.
Morsi, who became Egypt's first freely elected president in June, was quoted by Ali as telling his prime minister and security chiefs earlier Monday that his decrees were designed to "end the transitional period as soon as possible."
The dispute is the latest crisis to roil the Arab world's most populous nation, which has faced mass protests, a rise in crime and economic woes since the initial euphoria following the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak after nearly 30 years of autocratic rule.
Morsi's decrees were motivated in part by a court ruling in June that dissolved parliament's more powerful lower chamber, the People's Assembly, which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamists.
The verdict meant that legislative authority first fell in the hands of the then-ruling military, but Morsi grabbed it in August after he ordered the retirement of the army's two top generals.
Morsi's decrees saved the constitutional panel and the upper chamber from a fate similar to that of the People's Assembly because several courts looking into the legal basis of their creation were scheduled to issue verdicts to disband them.
Secular and Christian politicians have withdrawn from the 100-seat panel tasked with drafting the charter to protest what they call the hijacking of the process by Morsi's Islamist allies. They fear the Islamists will produce a draft that infringes on the rights of liberals, women and the minority Christians.
The dispute over the decrees has taken a toll on the nation's already ailing economy. Egypt's benchmark stock index dropped more than 9.5 percentage points on Sunday, the first day of trading since Morsi's announcement. It fell again Monday during early trading but recovered to close up 2.6 percentage points.
It has also played out in street protests across the country.
Thousands gathered in Damanhoor for the funeral procession of 15-year-old Islam Abdel-Maksoud, who was killed Sunday when a group of anti-Morsi protesters tried to storm the local offices of the political arm of the Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group.
The Health Ministry said 444 people have been wounded nationwide, including 49 who remain hospitalized, since the clashes erupted on Friday, according to a statement carried by the official news agency MENA.
Morsi's office said that he had ordered the country's top prosecutor to investigate the teenager's death, along with that of another young man shot in Cairo last week during demonstrations to mark the anniversary of deadly protests last year that called for an end to the then-ruling military.
Up to 10,000 people marched through Tahrir Square for the funeral procession of 16-year-old Gaber Salah, who died Sunday of head wounds suffered in clashes with police. Salah was a member of April 6, one of the key rights groups behind the anti-Mubarak uprising, and a founder of a Facebook group called "Against the Muslim Brotherhood."