Power Grab Prompts New Unrest In Egypt

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi announced Thursday an extraordinary set of new presidential powers that essentially nullify judicial oversight. His critics say he now has unchecked power, and the Muslim Brotherhood argues it is a necessary, and temporary, move to make reforms. Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Jacki Lyden talks with NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo for the latest.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Guy Raz is away.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi stunned the nation by announcing an extraordinary set of new presidential powers Thursday that essentially nullifies judicial oversight. His critics say that for now, he has unchecked power.

We'll take a look at what this means for the democracy movement in Egypt in a minute. But first, let's get the latest from NPR's Leila Fadel, who's in Cairo. Hi there, Leila. Thanks for joining us.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you.

LYDEN: So explain exactly what happened this week, how President Morsi's decree affects Egypt's judiciary.

FADEL: Well, he basically nullified the judiciary. He basically said: Anything I decide stands and there's no way to challenge it in court. And on top of that, if you plan to challenge the body tasked with writing the constitution, that's also not allowed. If you plan to challenge the Shura Council, the elected upper house of parliament, that's also not allowed. Overall, he also just gave a catch-all decree that says: If I think anything threatens last year's revolution, I get to do whatever I deem necessary to deal with it. So it's quite frightening. A lot of his critics say, how are we supposed to deal with a man who is all powerful, who is the law in Egypt?

LYDEN: Yeah. Leila, what specific actions can judges - are judges in Egypt taking in response to this?

FADEL: Well, really, Morsi is facing a possible judicial rebellion. So today, there was a huge angry meeting of judges, what they call a judges assembly here in Cairo in the Supreme Court. And I'm just going to play a clip for you of Ashraf Zahran, one of those judges speaking there today.

ASHRAF ZAHRAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: He's saying Egypt did not deserve this from you, Mr. President. Go to him. Tell him that he has been unjust, and tell him that the rights of the martyrs do not come by wasting legitimacy. And basically, the judges are saying we're going to go on strike. So far, three courts in Alexandria and in the Delta region plan to completely suspend activity, and the Judges' Club is calling for a nationwide strike. This would effectively paralyze the judicial system, and they're hoping that this type of prospect will force Morsi to rescind the decrees.

LYDEN: So how's the Muslim Brotherhood reacting to this move? I mean, they had said that they were supporting democracy.

FADEL: Well, they say this exceptional measure, and as critics say, this undemocratic move, is needed to create a democracy in Egypt. They say that every time we take a step forward, these courts, these Mubarak era appointed judges stand in our way. We elected a parliament; they dissolved the powerful lower house that would issue legislation. We elected an constituent assembly; they dissolved the assembly because it's mostly Islamists.

They say we're tired of having to fight remnants of the old regime to get to political stability. So they say this is a temporary measure. Don't worry. Trust the president. He'll give the power back.

LYDEN: It doesn't seem to be having that effect. Aren't demonstrations being planned?

FADEL: You know, what's interesting is the country is just so polarized and so divided right now as the political establishment is along secular versus Islamist lines. And when we go out to these protests, it isn't that feeling of revolution in the street. It's a few thousand people. Most people didn't stay overnight despite calls for a declared sit-in. But in the future, they plan to strike more. Both sides are calling for huge mass protests on Tuesday, and judges are also calling for protests. Lawyers are calling for protests. And we'll just have to see if the country falls apart due to these decrees.

LYDEN: Well, Leila Fadel, thanks very much for giving us that report.

FADEL: Thank you.

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