CAIRO // Egypt's top judges yesterday accused the country's president, Mohammed Morsi, of promoting an "unprecedented assault" on an independent judiciary.
On Thursday, Mr Morsi granted himself nearly absolute power in the country, including over the courts, in what he said was an effort to speed progress and to protect the transition to constitutional democracy. After an emergency meeting, the Supreme Judicial Council, the highest court in the country, said in a statement released by Egypt's official news agency, Mena, that Mr Morsi's decision was an "unprecedented assault on the judiciary and it rulings".
The court called on the president to "distance himself from the declaration and all things that touch judicial authority, its specifications or interference in its members or its rulings". Hundreds protested outside a downtown courthouse against Mr Morsi while awaiting the court's statement.
The judges join a widening list of leaders and activists from Egypt's political factions, including some Islamists, who have denounced the decree.
Mr Morsi's order temporarily strips the courts of oversight of the president and the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting a new constitution. It also removes from office the country's prosecutor-general, a holdover from the former president Hosni Mubarak era, whom Mr Morsi unsuccessfully tried to fire last month.
The president's opponents see the judiciary as the only remaining civilian branch of government with a degree of independence, because Mr Morsi already holds executive power and as well as legislative authority due to the dissolution of parliament in June.
Since assuming office in June, Mr Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country's first freely elected president, has repeatedly butted heads with the judiciary, which is dominated by Mubarak-era appointees and viewed by Mr Morsi's supporters as an obstacle to his political agenda.
The edicts Morsi issued mean that no judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the current assembly writing the new constitution, which are also both led by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Supporters of Morsi feared that courts reviewing cases against these bodies might have dissolved them, further postponing Egypt's transition under the aegis of a new constitution. Mena also reported that judges in Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, announced they would strike in protest of Mr Morsi's declaration.
In Cairo, sporadic clashes between young protesters and police around Tahrir Square continued for a sixth consecutive day. The relatively low-grade clashes on Mohamd Mahmoud Street followed a night of some of the most intense violence of the last week between rock-throwing protesters and police, who unleashed a torrent of tear gas and birdshot on the protesters.
Mohamed Kamel, a doctor at a field hospital set up inside the square, said that he had treated 45 injuries the previous night, including one serious chest wound from a rock thrown by police.
On the muddied centre lawn inside the square, hundreds of demonstrators had heeded calls from at least 15 different opposition groups to participate in a sit-in against Mr Morsi's declaration. About two dozen tents had gone up overnight, many marked with the insignia of liberal and secular political parties and activist groups.
Tamin Heikel, 35, a member of the El Adl Party, vowed to remain in the square until Mr Morsi repealed his decree.
"Of course [Morsi] will respond to the pressure, but not right away," he said. "We will have to stay for a long time and escalate our activities."
Ahmed Mohamed Mahmoud, a 37-year-old civil engineer, went even further, saying he was prepared to "stay here until Morsi falls off his chair," adding, "a country without laws is not a country".
Like many of the other protesters, Mr Mahmoud said he had voted for Mr Morsi in the presidential election this year and that he had never participated in political activism before. But he said that Mr Morsi's most recent action convinced him that the president's pledges were all lies and that he had instead led the country to a dangerous precipice.
"Civil war is coming very soon," he insisted, pointing to the violence on Friday between Muslim Brotherhood and non-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators in cities across Egypt, "because we have Egyptians fighting Egyptians".
He was unimpressed by Mr Morsi's speech on Friday, in which he justified his actions as essential to preserving the gains of last year's revolution.
"It didn't convince anyone older than 12," Mr Mahmoud quipped.