Egypt judges battle Morsi over sweeping powers

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CAIRO (AFP) – Defiant Egyptian judges hit back at President Mohamed Morsi on Saturday demanding he reverse a decree giving himself sweeping powers that put him beyond judicial oversight, after more clashes between police and protesters.

Egypt’s Judges Club held emergency talks in Cairo to mull their response to Morsi’s “ferocious attack on Egyptian justice,” Club chief Ahmed al-Zind told the club’s general assembly, as furious judges chanted “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

Protesters tried to storm the High Court where the judges were meeting but were dispersed when police fired tear gas.

Earlier, anti-riot police fired tear gas to disperse anti-Morsi protesters camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as Western governments voiced growing concern over the political crisis.

The Supreme Judicial Council denounced Morsi’s constitutional declaration as “an unprecedented attack on the independence of the judiciary and its rulings”, while the Judges Club of Alexandria announced “the suspension of work in all courts and prosecution administrations in the provinces of Alexandria and Beheira.”

And they “will accept nothing less than the cancellation of (Morsi’s decree),” which violates the principle of separation of powers, club chief Mohammed Ezzat al-Agwa said.

The president already held both and executive and legislative powers, and his Thursday decree puts him beyond judicial oversight until a new constitution has been ratified in a referendum.

The measures are valid only until the new constitution now being drafted is adopted, and supporters argue they will hasten what has been a turbulent and seemingly endless transition to democracy.

In Cairo, a statement by some 20 “independent judges” said that while some of the decisions taken by the president were a response to popular demands, they were issued “at the expense of freedom and democracy.”

Morsi has ordered the reopening of investigations into the deaths of some 850 protesters during the 2011 uprising, and hundreds more since.

New prosecutor general Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah said new “revolutionary courts” would be set up and could see former president Hosni Mubarak, his sons and his top security chiefs retried “should there be new evidence.”

Mubarak and his interior minister were sentenced to life over the killing of protesters in last year’s popular uprising against him, but six security chiefs were acquitted in the same case sparking nationwide outrage.

In an address to supporters outside the presidential palace on Friday, Morsi had insisted Egypt remained on the path to “freedom and democracy”, despite his move to undercut the judiciary.

“Political stability, social stability and economic stability are what I want and that is what I am working for,” he said.

It also means that the Islamist-dominated panel drawing up the new charter can no longer be touched and gives it a two-month extension until February to complete its work.

— Rallies by Morsi supporters, foes —

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A hard core of opposition activists spent the night in Tahrir Square — epicentre of the anti-Mubarak uprising — where they erected some 30 tents, an AFP correspondent reported.

When others attempted to join them in the morning, police fired volleys of tear gas and forced them to retreat into surrounding streets.

The mainly secular liberals say they are determined to keep up the momentum of protests against Morsi’s decree and have called a new mass protest in Tahrir for Tuesday.

The Muslim Brotherhood called on its own supporters to take to the streets in Abdeen Square, just streets away from Tahrir, to show their support for Morsi.

“Egypt is at the start of a new revolution because it was never our intention to replace one dictator with another,” activist Mohammed al-Gamal told AFP, showing his broken spectacles and hand in a plaster cast than he said were the result of police action.

Washington, which only Wednesday voiced fulsome praise for Morsi’s role in brokering a truce between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers to end eight days of deadly violence, led international criticism of the Islamist president’s move.

“The decisions and declarations announced on November 22 raise concerns for many Egyptians and for the international community,” said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“One of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.”

But a spokesman for the Freedom and Justice Party, headed by Morsi before his election, said the president’s decree was necessary to cut short the turbulent transition.

“We need stability,” said Murad Ali. “That’s not going to happen if we go back again to allowing the judges, who have personal reasons, to dissolve the constituent assembly in order to prolong the transitional phase.”

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