Cairo • Egypt’s highest body of judges slammed on Saturday a recent decision by the president to grant himself near-absolute power, calling the move an “unprecedented assault” on the judiciary.
The statement from the Supreme Judicial Council came as hundreds protested outside a downtown courthouse against Thursday’s declaration by President Mohammed Morsi. The president’s decision means that courts cannot overrule his decrees until a new constitution and parliament is in place, several months if not more in the future.
The judges’ condemnation of the president’s edicts are the latest blow to Morsi, whose decision set off a firestorm of controversy and prompted tens of thousands of people to take to the streets in nationwide protests on Friday.
Through their statement, carried by the official MENA agency, the judges join a widening list of leaders and activists from Egypt’s political factions, including some Islamists, who have denounced the decree.
The Supreme Judicial Council is packed with judges appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak. It regulates judicial promotions and is chaired by the head of the Court of Cassation.
Their move reflects a broader sense of anger within the judiciary against the president. Some judges’ groups and prosecutors have already announced partial strikes to protest Morsi’s decree.
Morsi has accused pro-Mubarak elements in the judiciary of blocking political progress. In the last year, courts have dissolved the lower house of parliament as well as the first panel drafting the constitution, both led by his Muslim Brotherhood group.
The edicts Morsi issued mean that no judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the current assembly writing the new constitution, which are also both led by the Brotherhood. Supporters of Morsi feared that courts reviewing cases against these bodies might have dissolved them, further postponing Egypt’s transition under the aegis of a new constitution.
They say Morsi has a mandate to guide this process as Egypt’s first freely elected president, having defeated one of Mubarak’s former prime ministers this summer in a closely contested election.
The judges’ council’s stand against the president sets the ground for an uneasy alliance between former regime officials and activist groups that helped topple Mubarak’s regime and have in the past derided those officials as “felool,” or remnants.
The presidents’ opponents nonetheless see the judiciary as the only remaining civilian branch of government with a degree of independence, since Morsi already holds executive power and as well as legislative authority due to the dissolution of parliament.
The judges released their statement following an emergency meeting Saturday. They said Morsi’s decision is an “unprecedented assault on the judiciary and it rulings” and called on the president to “distance himself from the declaration and all things that touch judicial authority, its specifications or interference in its members or its rulings.”
The primary court in Alexandria and the judges’ club there announced Saturday they and public prosecutors have suspended all work until the declaration is withdrawn, according to the state news agency MENA.
One of the most controversial edicts states that the president has the right to take any steps to prevent “threats to the revolution,” wording that activists say is vague and harkens back to the type of language employed by Mubarak to clamp down on dissent.
Morsi said Friday, before thousands of Brotherhood supports outside his presidential palace in Cairo, that he decision was aimed at protecting the nation from old regime loyalists using the judiciary to “harm the country.”
He removed on Thursday the country’s longtime attorney general, widely seen as a Mubarak holdover who did not effectively pursue the many cases against former regime officials accused of corruption, and ordered the retrial of former officials if new evidence against them is brought forth.
The ousted attorney general, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, appeared before a gathering of Egyptian judges on Saturday — his first public appearance since Morsi’s decree. He was greeted by raucous applause and cries of “Illegitimate! Illegitimate!” in reference to the president’s decision. He read out a statement saying judicial authorities are looking into the legality of the president’s decision to remove him.
“I thank you for your support of judicial independence,” he told the judges, gathered in a downtown courthouse. The head of Egypt’s judges’ club, Ahmed el-Zind, declared Morsi’s move as “unconstitutional.” He was a vocal critic of Morsi during the presidential campaign and warned of a Brotherhood-dominate state if he won.
Morsi had tried once before to fire Mahmoud, in October, but rescinded his decision when judges and the attorney general stood against him, saying that he did not have the authority to do so.
Others gathered outside the courthouse, denouncing the president and chanting “Leave, leave.” Police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of young men who were shooting flares.
“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. The country’s most prominent opposition groups called for another mass rally on Tuesday, saying that the edicts make Morsi a “new pharaoh.”
Health ministry officials quoted in state media said more than 200 people were wounded nationwide in the clashes Friday. Security officials said more than 100 police were also wounded in clashes in Cairo near Tahrir Square where protesters have been battling security forces for days to demand retribution for the killing of 42 protesters in November of last year.
Brian Rohan contributed to this report from Cairo.