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 and calling for a nationwide strike.
Egypt’s Judges Club, a body that represents judges throughout the country, called for “the suspension of work in all courts and prosecution administrations,” after several hours of emergency talks in response to what they called Morsi’s “ferocious attack on Egyptian justice.”
As the judges met, civil groups led former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei, and former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi, Amr Mussa and Abdelmoneim Abul Futuh, said there could be no dialogue with Morsi until he rescinded the decree.
“We refuse any dialogue with the president until he cancels the constitutional declaration,” according to a joint statement read out at a news conference.
Earlier protesters tried to storm the High Court where the judges were meeting but were dispersed when police fired tear gas.
Just a few streets away, anti-riot police had 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.
Several judicial bodies have condemned Morsi’s decree, with the Supreme Judicial Council, denouncing it as “an unprecedented attack on the independence of the judiciary and its rulings.”
Earlier, the Judges Club of Alexandria announced a strike in the provinces of Alexandria and Beheira and said 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 decree also means that the Islamist-dominated panel drawing up a new constitution can no longer be touched and gives it a two-month extension until February to complete its work.
The measures are valid only until the new charter is adopted, and supporters argue they will hasten what has been a turbulent and seemingly endless transition to democracy.
But in Cairo, a statement by around 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.
— Rallies by Morsi supporters, foes —
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.
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.”