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After a series of controversial decrees by President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's judges are torn and many are now willing to strike. Morsi and the country's highest judicial authority met today hoping to resolve the crisis. But an explanation of the decrees didn't do much to reassure judges, and Morsi made sure they had no power to reverse him.
NPR's Leila Fadel has the story of one judge's struggle to save the integrity of a system he pledged to honor.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Yussef Auf has been a judge for 10 years now. And at 35, he's never witnessed such an affront to his profession.
YUSSEF AUF: It's the biggest attack on the judges so far I have seen in my life. In the history of the Egyptian judiciary, I think it's one of the - it might be the biggest one or the second biggest one.
FADEL: The last assault on this scale, he says, was a series of decrees from former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1969 that removed the justice minister and purged a slew of judges, remembered in Egypt as the massacre of judges. Auf says, Morsi's decrees are equally bad.
AUF: It's a severe violation for the judicial independence, a severe violation for the rule of law, a severe violation for all principles of the legal state.
FADEL: The fresh-faced judge is a believer in the judicial system and takes his job in Giza's primary court seriously. It took him days to decide what to do after Morsi issued the decrees last week and after some courts decided to suspend operation in protest. Auf went back and forth. Striking will hurt people's lives, he says, not striking will shake the very roots of the judicial system.
In a closed-door meeting at his district courthouse today, judges met for three hours to decide what to do. Crowds waited outside courtrooms for scheduled hearings, but the judges never came.
The judges unanimously decided to strike, joining what Auf says are 80 percent of judges across Egypt. He is visibly exhausted from the deliberations. Auf adds he was so moved to save the judicial system that he took the mic during the meeting and encouraged the holdouts to strike. He said he told them...
AUF: It's for the whole nation. And we have to preserve, we have to maintain the whole nation from this new tyranny trend which is being born in Egypt now.
FADEL: He adds that if every judge strikes, 20 million cases will be put on hold, from marriages to land disputes. The hope is that people will put pressure on the president to rescind his decisions.
AUF: This is our reaction. We are waiting for the second reaction from the president to change or at - to delete, to cancel the declaration.
FADEL: But Morsi's allies in The Muslim Brotherhood say the decrees are the only path to political stability. They charge that Egypt's top judges are remnants of the Mubarak regime, given their actions over the past six months.
First, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the elected legislature, then dissolved the first constitution-writing body, both dominated by Islamists. Another case scheduled for December 2nd would likely have done the same to the latest body tasked with writing the constitution. But attacking the judiciary, Auf, says, is not the answer.
AUF: Is it logic to say if I couldn't have the decision that I want, that this court is corrupted, that this court is the remnant of the old regime? I have to accept the decision of the court regardless of whether or not it's for me or not.
FADEL: He says he doesn't agree with the dissolution of either the constituent assembly or the lower house of parliament based on his own legal interpretations. But Egyptians, he says, must respect the legal system or deal with true tyranny.
AUF: If you have any concerns about the judiciary practice, just change it by legitimate ways - by changing the laws, by amending the constitution, by the democratic means - not by this way.
FADEL: Right now, Auf says, he's worried that the nation will be ripped apart by the decrees. In some cases, demonstrations have been violent.
AUF: I am asking God to save the country tomorrow because we are all feel dangerous situation.
FADEL: Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.