Protests erupted across Egypt yesterday against a decree issued by president Mohammed Morsi granting himself sweeping powers and threatening to derail Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to condemn the move, which opponents perceive as a power grab by Mr Morsi, a former leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Offices of the Freedom and Justice party, the Brotherhood’s political arm, were attacked in cities across Egypt. In the coastal city of Alexandria, protesters stormed the party’s base, throwing books and papers from windows and tearing down banners. Clashes also broke out between anti-government protesters and security forces injuring 25 people. Offices in Port Said and Ismailia were also torched.
Mr Morsi’s constitutional amendment declares that decrees and laws issued by the president cannot be revoked or challenged by anyone. It also grants immunity to the assembly charged with drafting a new constitution and the upper house of parliament from being dissolved and extends the deadline for completing the draft constitution by two months.
Mr Morsi also dismissed the public prosecutor, a relic of the old regime, and ordered the retrial of those accused of killing or injuring protesters during last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak – both key demands of the revolution that the president had been unable to enforce. They include Mubarak, jailed for life for his role earlier this year.
A Coptic Christian aide to Mr Morsi, Samer Marqous, resigned over the statement calling it “undemocratic”.
The decree came a day after Mr Morsi had been praised by western powers for his role in securing a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
In a 45-minute rambling speech yesterday at a rally outside the presidential palace, Mr Morsi insisted Egypt remained on a path to democracy. He stood by his decision to grant himself absolute power saying it was a necessary temporary measure until a constitution is in place to prevent supporters of former president Mubarak’s regime blocking reform.
He said he would never use legislation “against individuals” or to advance his personal interests or settle old scores.
“I am performing my duty to please God and the nation,” he added.
Many Egyptians fear the move is a bid by the Brotherhood to consolidate its power and push its own agenda.
Others feel the decree was an attempt to undermine Egypt’s judiciary, which has been at odds with the presidency since it dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament earlier this year.
During Mr Morsi’s speech, clashes broke out in Mohammed Mahmoud Street, near Tahrir Square, between anti-government protesters who threw stones and petrol bombs at security forces who responded by firing tear gas. In Tahrir Square, the sentiment was that Egypt had replaced one dictator with another. Protesters waving flags and carrying banners describing Mr Morsi as a tyrant chanted “the people want the fall of the regime”.
“We did not have a revolution to bring in another dictator,” said Mohammed Fathi, 46.
Protesters, including liberals and secular revolutionaries, were joined by opposition leaders Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leftist, and Amr Moussa, former head of the Arab League, as well as Mohammed ElBaradei, a liberal opposition figure and Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Mr ElBaradei, who last year warned against electing a president before presidential powers were set out in a constitution, said Mr Morsi had declared himself Egypt’s new pharaoh and described his move as “a major blow to the revolution that could have dire consequences”.