Under Fire, Egypt's Morsi To Meet With Judges

After Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi helped broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, he expanded his powers at home by exempting his rulings from judicial review until a new constitution is ratified. Egyptian judges have condemned the move, and some have called for a strike.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has granted himself almost absolute power, but has not been able to win anything like unanimous approval. The new president faces criticism for a decree stating he can do anything he thinks will advance Egypt's revolution, and that courts cannot review his decisions. Egyptians have taken to the streets in protest. Markets have reacted badly, and the country's top judges are paying Morsi a visit today to discuss this turn of events.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo, following the action.

And, Soraya, given what Morsi has said making the judges powerless, what can they really discuss?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, he's going to try to clarify his decrees to the judges. They want some sort of explanation. And they certainly want a working timeline for when he's going to give up some of his power, including over the legislature and over himself, for that matter. I mean, he wants - they want to be able to have that oversight over his presidency, like one might find in other democratic countries.

In any event, Morsi's under a lot of pressure to give some ground today, says Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the History Department at the American University in Cairo.

KHALED FAHMY: There is a calls for a big demonstrations tomorrow, Tuesday. And there are calls for a general strike that are gradually gaining momentum. So he's trying to find a compromise, especially with the judiciary, because that is the spark that triggered all of this dynamite.

NELSON: But based on what we're hearing for Morsi allies, it's unlikely that he's going to do enough of a rollback to satisfy his critics.

INSKEEP: OK, we just heard that the move against the judiciary was the spark triggering the dynamite. What was it that made Morsi move against the judges?

NELSON: Well, he sees these courts and these judges as holdovers from the Mubarak regime. I mean, a lot of these judges were, in fact, appointed by Mubarak. And, you know, he feels that they're bent on making his presidency look ineffective. And he actually has some justification for that belief because, in the past six months, they've dissolved the Lower House of Parliament. They dissolved the first Islamist-dominated assembly that was tasked with drafting a constitution.

And Morsi was worried that they would do the same thing again next month with the Upper House of Parliament, as well as with the current constitution drafting committee. Still, analysts say he went too far.

Again, Khaled Fahmy.

FAHMY: So far, we've managed to do this revolution while keeping the institutions of the state intact. Now, what he's doing is effectively challenging the very stability of these institutions. He's allowing the executive to encroach upon the judiciary. So that is what we're concerned about, that these are permanent changes that would be very difficult to unfold. Especially given the fact that we don't have a parliament and we don't have a constitution.

INSKEEP: OK. So these judges have been marginalized for now - judges, many of whom were appointed by the former president, Hosni Mubarak. How exactly have they reacted, besides going to talk with the president?

NELSON: Well, they're really angry, and they've been getting together. Some of the key judges have called for a nationwide strike of courts, which has not really taken off, because the Supreme Judicial Council - and this is the authority that's meeting with Morsi today - advised against it.

Still, that same council, these same judges who are going to meet with him today are really concerned that Morsi has overstepped his bounds. And they are demanding that he restore the judicial oversight, especially over matters that don't pertain to his presidency, like the constitution.

INSKEEP: Soraya, let me get to what might be a vital question, here. Morsi has said these moves are temporary. Is there any evidence to support that idea that he's just dealing with a crisis here, that he hasn't given up on the notion of checks and balances, separation of power or really any kind of democracy?

NELSON: Well, certainly, that's what his allies and supporters are saying. I mean, we even have demonstrators in the streets - of course, many of them are pro-Muslim Brotherhood, if not actually members of the Muslim Brotherhood - who are saying this, as well.

And this is what Nader Omran, who is a spokesman from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said at a news conference last night.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

NADER OMRAN: I think this majority or these people will not just stand still. I think they will revolt again against Morsi. And I'm talking - I am - I will be the first one to be there against this. So let's be more realistic, and let's just feel that this two months or less than two months is really needed.

NELSON: You just heard him say that this was going to be a two-month assumption of power. But others say that it could be a lot longer, especially if the constitution is not drafted in the time allotted.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo. Soraya, thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

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