CAIRO — Egypt’s president told the country’s top judges Monday that he did not infringe on their authority when he seized near absolute powers, setting up a prolonged showdown on the eve of a mass protest planned by opponents of the Islamist leader.
An aide to President Mohammed Morsi said the decree was limited to “sovereignty-related issues,” but that did not satisfy his critics.
The uncompromising stance came during a meeting between Morsi and members of the Supreme Judiciary Council in 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.
The judiciary, the main target of Morsi’s edicts, also 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 other cities on Sunday and Monday.
A spokesman said Morsi told the judges that he acted within his right as the nation’s sole source of legislation when he issued decrees putting himself above judicial oversight. The president also extended the same immunity to two bodies dominated by his Islamist allies – a panel drafting a new constitution and parliament’s mostly toothless upper chamber.
The spokesman, Yasser Ali, also told reporters that Morsi assured the judges that the decrees did not in any way “infringe” on the judiciary and that they were “temporary” and limited only to “sovereignty-related issues.”
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. If the president wanted to resolve the crisis, there should be an amendment to his constitutional declaration.”
Up to 10,000 people marched through Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, for the funeral procession of 16-year-old Gaber Salah, who succumbed to his head wounds on Sunday. Salah was wounded in clashes with police in the capital during protests against the Brotherhood earlier last week, before the decrees were issued.
Mourners marched with the Salah’s body laid in a coffin wrapped in Egypt’s red, white and black flag from Tahrir to a cemetery east of the city. Already images of Salah have appeared on Tahrir’s walls. Underneath the images were the words: “Your blood will spark a new revolution.”
Salah was a member of April 6, one of the key right groups behind the anti-Mubarak uprising. He was also a founder of a Facebook group called “Against the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Also on Monday, Human Rights Watch said that Morsi’s decrees undermined the rule of law in Egypt and appeared to give him the power to issue emergency-style measures at any time for vague reasons. In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in thinly veiled criticism that the separation of powers was a fundamental principle of any democratic constitution.
Morsi, added spokesman Steffen Seibert, has a “great responsibility” to lead Egypt to a “democratically ordered political system” that rests on that principle.