Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi expanded his authority Thursday in a startling power grab that weakens the courts and frees him from judicial oversight amid deepening political intrigue in the Arab world’s most populous nation.
The Islamist president’s bold gesture, which infuriated civil rights leaders, came the day after he was praised for negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Thursday’s move effectively makes Morsi, who already holds executive and legislative powers, the ultimate force in a country that has no parliament and has yet to draft a new constitution.
The decree, which still could be challenged by the Supreme Constitutional Court, extends immunity to the Islamist-led assembly writing the constitution. The court has been reviewing whether to dissolve the body over legitimacy questions. But Morsi’s decision appears to protect from judicial oversight the assembly that secularists accuse of wanting to impose Sharia law.
“Morsi today usurped all state powers (and) appointed himself Egypt’s new pharaoh,” Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and reformist, posted on his Twitter account. “A major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences.”
The timing of Morsi’s decision suggested that he was looking to calm violent protests against the state for not bringing security forces to justice in the deaths of demonstrators over the last year. After announcing the decree, Morsi ordered a retrial for toppled leader Hosni Mubarak, whose life sentence for his role in the killing of protesters during the 2011 uprising was seen by many Egyptians as too lenient.
New trials also were ordered for other former top officials. Morsi fired Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak-era holdover often criticized for not aggressively pursuing members of the old regime. The president tried to get rid of Mahmoud last month but relented, if embarrassed, after an uproar from judges criticizing him for maneuvering to silence an independent judiciary.
Morsi’s strategy in recent months has been to marginalize the courts, including many judges who were appointed by Mubarak. Morsi views the judiciary, which this year disbanded the Islamist-led parliament, as disrupting the country’s transition to democracy.