CAIRO – Egypt's chief prosecutor ordered an investigation on Thursday into allegations that opposition leaders committed treason by inciting supporters to overthrow Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The probe by a Morsi-appointed prosecutor was launched a day after the president called for a dialogue with the opposition to heal rifts opened in the bitter fight over an Islamist-drafted constitution just approved in a referendum. The opposition decried the investigation as a throwback to Hosni Mubarak's regime, when the law was used to smear and silence opponents.
The probe was almost certain to sour the already tense political atmosphere in the country.
The allegations were made initially in a complaint by at least two lawyers sent to the chief prosecutor earlier this month. They targeted opposition leaders Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear agency, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa, and Hamdeen Sabahi. Both Moussa and Sabahi were presidential candidates who competed against Morsi in the last election.
There was no immediate comment by any of the three opposition leaders named but the opposition dismissed the allegations.
Emad Abu Ghazi, secretary-general of the opposition party ElBaradei heads, said the investigation was "an indication of a tendency toward a police state and the attempt to eliminate political opponents." He said the ousted Mubarak regime dealt with the opposition in the same way.
Mubarak jailed his opponents, including liberals and Islamists. International rights groups said their trials did not meet basic standards of fairness.
ElBaradei was a leading figure behind the uprising against Mubarak and at one point, he was allied with the Brotherhood against the old regime.
The investigation does not necessarily mean charges will be filed against the leaders. But it is unusual for state prosecutors to investigate such broad charges against high-profile figures.
Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, asked the opposition on Wednesday to join a national dialogue to heal rifts and move on after a month of huge street protests against him and the constitution drafted by his allies.
Some of the protests erupted into deadly violence. On Dec. 5, anti-Morsi demonstrators staging a sit-in outside the presidential palace in Cairo were attacked by Morsi supporters. Fierce clashes ensued that left 10 people dead.
The wave of protests began after Morsi's Nov. 22 decrees that gave him and the assembly writing the constitution immunity from judicial oversight. That allowed his Islamist allies on the assembly to hurriedly rush through the charter before an expected court ruling dissolving the panel.
After the decrees, the opposition accused Morsi of amassing too much power in his hands. They said the constitution was drafted without the participation of liberal, minority Christian and women members of the assembly, who walked out in protest at the last minute.
Even though the constitution passed in a referendum, the opposition has vowed to keep fighting it. They say it enshrines Islamic law in Egypt, undermines rights of minorities and women, and restricts freedoms.
Morsi and Brotherhood officials accused the opposition of working to undermine the president's legitimacy, and accused former regime officials of working to topple him.
Although he reached out to the opposition for reconciliation, Morsi did not offer any concessions in his speech Wednesday calling for a dialogue.
On Wednesday Morsi asked his prime minister to carry out a limited reshuffle of his government, without offering the opposition any seats.
In an apparent protest against the decision to keep the same prime minister, the minister of parliamentary affairs resigned. A member of his Islamist party said Prime Minister Hesham Kandil has not lived up to the challenges of the previous period, and a stronger, more political prime minister should be nominated.
This is the second resignation of a Cabinet minister this week and follows a spate of resignations of senior aides and advisers during the constitutional crisis.
Details of the complaint filed by the two lawyers were carried on the website of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic fundamentalist group that has become Egypt's most powerful political faction since the 2011 uprising.
The report said their complaint alleged that the opposition leaders were "duping simple Egyptians to rise against legitimacy and were inciting against the president," which constitutes treason.
Yara Khalaf, a spokeswoman for Moussa, said there were no official charges and he had not been summoned for investigation. But she declined to comment on the accusations.
Heba Yassin, a spokesman for the Popular Current headed by Sabahi, said Sabahi faced similar charges under Mubarak and his predecessor. She dismissed them as fabrications and an attempt to smear his reputation and silence the opposition.
"Morsi is confirming that he is following the same policies of Mubarak in repressing his opponents and trying to smear their reputation through false accusations," Yassin said.
"Also this is evidence of what we had warned about – the judiciary and the prosecutor-general must be independent and not appointed by the president," she said. "He is a Morsi appointee and this is where his loyalty lies and he is now implementing orders to eliminate the opposition."
The chief prosecutor, Talaat Abdullah, was appointed by Morsi at the height of the political tension over the constitution. He could not be immediately reached for comment.
Morsi's Nov. 22 presidential decrees appointed Abdullah to replace the chief prosecutor who was a holdover from the Mubarak regime. The judiciary protested the move, seeing it as trampling of its authority to choose the chief prosecutor.
The Supreme Judicial Council, the country's highest judicial authority, asked Abdullah to step down Wednesday because he was appointed by the president.
Human Rights lawyer Bahy Eddin Hassan said the fact that the chief prosecutor has asked for an investigation meant he is taking the accusations by the lawyers seriously.
Abdullah asked a judge to conduct the investigation, the state news agency reported.
Hassan said this was an attempt to show that the investigation is independent. However the judiciary, like the rest of the country, is divided between supporters and opponents of Morsi and the Brotherhood.
"This is the beginning of a series of events where the judiciary will be used to settle political scores with opponents," Hassan said. "This is not a new policy. But it is new that a regime that is just starting out uses such tools."
With an economic crisis and unpopular austerity measures looming in Egypt, Hassan said: "The regime wants to keep the opposition busy with its legal battles."