Morsi meets top judges over crisis


Egypt's president agreed today that only his decisions related to "sovereign" matters would be protected from judicial review, his spokesman said, indicating he had accepted a judiciary-proposed compromise to try to defuse a crisis.

Mohamed Morsi had enraged opponents with a decree on Thursday that expanded his powers and put any decision he took until parliament was in place beyond legal oversight. Senior judges proposed he limit that to "sovereign matters".

Mr Morsi negotiated with senior judges today to try to defuse a crisis over his seizure of new powers which set off violent protests reminiscent of an uprising last year that led to the rise of his Islamist movement.

"The president said he had the utmost respect for the judicial authority and its members," presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters. He added that regarding the issue of immunity for presidential decisions "what is intended is those that are linked to matters of sovereignty".

The justice minister said he believed Mr Morsi would agree with Egypt's highest judicial authority on its proposal to limit the scope of the new powers. Mr Morsi's spokesman said the president was "very optimistic Egyptians would overcome the crisis".

But the protesters, some camped in Cairo's Tahrir Square, have said only retracting the decree will satisfy them, a sign of the deep rift between Islamists and their opponents that is destabilising Egypt two years after Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

"There is no use amending the decree," said Tarek Ahmed (26), a protester who stayed the night in Tahrir, where tents covered the central traffic circle. "It must be scrapped."

One person has been killed and about 370 injured in clashes between police and protesters since Mr Morsi issued the decree on Thursday shielding his decisions from judicial review, emboldened by international plaudits for brokering an end to eight days of violence between Israel and Hamas.

US secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Egyptian foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr today to underscore US hopes that the political crisis can be resolved in a democratic manner, her department said.

Ms Clinton reiterated US concerns about Mr Morsi's decision to assume sweeping powers and checked in on the progress of discussions between Mr Morsi and senior judges on the way forward, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.

"The secretary underscored the importance of settling these disputes in a democratic manner, so we look forward to seeing the outcome of that [discussion]," Ms Nuland said.

"We are encouraged that the various important stakeholders in Egypt are now talking to each other, (and) that President Morsi is consulting on the way forward, but we're not going to prejudge where that is going to go."

Mr Morsi's political opponents have accused him of behaving like a dictator and the West has voiced its concern, worried by more turbulence in a country that has a peace treaty with Israel and lies at the heart of the Arab Spring.

The administration has defended his decree as an effort to speed up reforms and complete a democratic transformation. Leftists, liberals, socialists and others say it has exposed the autocratic impulses of a man once jailed by Mubarak.

The protesters are worried that Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood aims to dominate the post-Mubarak era after winning the first democratic parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

A deal with a judiciary dominated by Mubarak-era judges, which Mr Morsi has pledged to reform, may not placate them.

A group of lawyers and activists has also challenged Mr Morsi's decree in an administrative court, which said it would hold its first hearing on December 4th. Other decisions by Mr Morsi have faced similar legal challenges brought to court by opponents.

Banners in Tahrir called for dissolving the assembly drawing up a constitution, an Islamist-dominated body Mr Morsi made immune from legal challenge. Many liberals and others have walked out of the assembly saying their voices were not being heard.

Only once a constitution is written can a new parliamentary election be held. Until then, legislative and executive power remains in Mr Morsi's hands, and Thursday's decree puts his decisions above judicial oversight.

One Muslim Brotherhood member was killed and 60 people were hurt yesterday in an attack on the main office of the Brotherhood in the Egyptian Nile Delta town of Damanhour, the website of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said.

The party's offices have also been attacked in other cities.

One politician said the scale of the crisis could push opponents towards a deal to avoid a further escalation. Mr Morsi's opponents have called for a big demonstration tomorrow.

"I am very cautiously optimistic because the consequences are quite, quite serious, the most serious they have been since the revolution," said Mona Makram Ebeid, former member of parliament and prominent figure in Egyptian politics.

Mr Morsi's office repeated assurances that the steps would be temporary, and said he wanted dialogue with political groups to find "common ground" over what should go into the constitution.

Talks with Mr Morsi have been rejected by members of a National Salvation Front, a new opposition coalition that brings together liberal, leftist and other politicians and parties, who until Mr Morsi's decree had been a fractious bunch struggling to unite.

"There is no room for dialogue when a dictator imposes the most oppressive, abhorrent measures and then says 'let us split the difference'," prominent opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei said on Saturday. He has said he expected to act as the Front's coordinator.

The military has stayed out of the crisis after leading Egypt through a messy 16-month transition to a presidential election in June. Analysts say Morsi neutralised the army when he sacked top generals in August, appointing a new generation who now owe their advancement to the Islamist president.

Though the military still wields influence through business interests and a security role, it is out of frontline politics.

Egypt had hoped to stop the economic rot by signing an initial deal last week for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. As well as tumbling share prices, yields at a Sunday treasury bill auction rose, putting even more pressure on the government that faces a crushing budget deficit.


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