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CAIRO, Nov 27 2012 (IPS) - Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi issued a controversial decree last week that temporarily puts his decisions beyond judicial challenge. While critics decry the move as a blatant power grab, the presidency says it was necessary to safeguard Egypt’s post-revolution democratic transition.
Mursi’s decree, according to a statement from the presidency on Sunday, “was not meant to consolidate power, but rather to devolve it to a democratically-elected parliament and pre-empt attempts to undermine or dissolve two democratically-elected bodies (the Shura Council and the Constituent Assembly).”
The declaration calls for the retrial of police and Mubarak-era officials – including the ousted president himself – implicated in the killing of protesters during and after last year’s popular uprising. Given a recent spate of controversial police acquittals, this was welcomed by political forces across the board.
It was the items that followed that triggered a political firestorm.
The declaration goes on to make all presidential decisions “final and binding” until a new constitution is approved and parliamentary polls are held in some six months’ time. It also makes two government bodies – the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of Egypt’s parliament) and the Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) impervious to judicial rulings calling for their dissolution.
Mursi’s decree gives the Constituent Assembly an additional two months to finish drafting a national charter to be put before a popular referendum early next year. The constitution-drafting body has been dogged by controversy since its inception earlier this year, with secularist members opposed to the assembly’s Islamist majority.
The declaration gives the president the right to appoint a new prosecutor-general, which he did, replacing Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud – whose dismissal had been a longstanding revolutionary demand – with Judge Talaat Abdullah.
Judicial authorities along with Egypt’s liberal and leftist forces labelled the president “Egypt’s new pharaoh” and called his decree “dictatorial.” The Supreme Judicial Council described the move as an “unprecedented attack on judicial independence.”
In mid-June, on the eve of a hotly-contested presidential runoff, Egypt’s then ruling Supreme Military Council ordered dissolution of parliament’s lower house in which Islamist parties – particularly the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party – had together won a sizable majority. The order followed a ruling by Egypt’s High Constitutional Court (HCC) deeming the law regulating last year’s parliamentary polls unconstitutional.
In early July, only one week after becoming Egypt’s first freely elected head of state, Mursi in a direct challenge to the judiciary issued an executive decree calling on parliament’s dissolved lower house to reconvene. The president, however, quickly backed down after the HCC countermanded his decree.
Mursi struck back in August, dismissing Egypt’s ruling generals and thus ending the country’s military-administered transitional phase, and assuming legislative authority from the departing military council.
In mid-October, after the acquittal of several ex-regime officials charged with involvement in killing protesters, Mursi tried – and failed – to have Prosecutor-General Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud removed from his post. Mahmoud, appointed by Mubarak in 1996, has until now survived longstanding revolutionary demands to “purge” the judiciary of Mubarak-era officials.
On Friday, tens of thousands of demonstrators, supported by most non-Islamist political parties and groups, converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the president’s declaration. Similar numbers turned out at the presidential palace in a show of support for Mursi’s decision.
Addressing the crowds, Mursi stressed his respect for Egypt’s judicial institutions but asserted that a handful of high-placed judicial figures “still loyal to the former regime” were using their influence to stall transition to a functioning democracy.
Mursi frequently stressed the need for “stability” – and not without some cause.
Within the last two weeks, Egypt has faced challenges on both the foreign and domestic fronts, dealing with a week-long Israeli assault on the next-door Gaza Strip – where it successfully brokered a ceasefire – and ongoing street fights in Cairo between security forces and activists.
According to prominent Egyptian political analyst Tawfiq Ghanem, both sides in the dispute have valid concerns.
“There is a legitimate fear among the public that the presidency is accruing too much power; his critics see him assuming complete authority and freeing himself of judicial oversight,” Ghanem told IPS. “Mursi’s supporters, meanwhile, view the judiciary – especially the HCC – as unfairly blocking Mursi’s decisions and dissolving elected government bodies.”
Ghanem believes Mursi issued the decree to pre-empt the possible dissolution of the Shura Council and Constituent Assembly by the HCC, which is slated to rule on the constitutionality of both Islamist-led bodies early next month.
The HCC, Ghanem pointed out, “began taking sides in the fray this summer when it declared parliament’s newly-elected lower house unconstitutional and recommended the assembly’s dissolution.” Since then, he added, the court has “taken on an unprecedented political role.”
Nevertheless, Ghanem said, Mursi should have “coordinated the move with other political forces….he should also do more to reassure a wary public that he won’t use his considerable albeit temporary powers against civil liberties.”
Two separate mass demonstrations in Cairo are expected on Tuesday by supporters and opponents of the president’s controversial decree, with many fearing possible clashes between the two rival camps. On Sunday night, a young Muslim Brotherhood member was killed after unidentified assailants attacked an FJP office in Egypt’s Nile Delta.
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