CAIRO // Judges across Egypt threatened to go on strike yesterday and the Cairo stock exchange plunged as the effects from president Mohammed Morsi granting himself sweeping new powers increased.
Mr Morsi will meet members of the state's highest judicial authority, the Supreme Judicial Council, today to discuss his decree that put him above judicial oversight and insulated the constitutional assembly from the courts, state media reported.
Judges in at least three governorates – Alexandria, Beheira and Minya – suspended their work completely while other judges were still deciding whether to join the stopwork.
The Cairo Stock Exchange drop-ped 9.5 per cent almost as soon as it opened yesterday, prompting authorities to temporarily suspend trading. The exchange has a built-in floor allowing for a maximum daily drop of 10 per cent in overall value.
The decree, issued on Thursday, states any presidential decisions made between Mr Morsi taking office in June and the election of a new parliament and approval of a constitution "are final and binding".
The decree grants Egypt's Islamist-majority constitutional assembly an extra two months to finish drafting the new constitution.
That could extend the process into early next year and push parliamentary elections into the spring.
Mr Morsi's concern over the fate of the assembly may have been the driving force behind the decree.
The former foreign minister, Amr Moussa, and representatives of the Coptic Orthodox Church have recently left the 100-member body, charging it was dominated by Islamists crafting a constitution that opened the door to Sharia law.
The assembly was also subject to a court case that could have dissolved it, but that threat was annulled by Mr Morsi's decree.
The prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, who Mr Morsi failed to fire this year, has been removed by the decree, which placed retroactive limits on his time in office.
The decree also includes the following simple, yet ominous, article – which critics charge is step towards martial law: "The president may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution."
It all amounts to a massive alteration of Egypt's already unnatural post-revolutionary system of governmental checks and balances.
But Mr Morsi said the new powers are only temporary.
Mr Morsi holds both executive and legislative power after the previous Islamist-dominated parliament was dissolved by a court order over the summer.
Now he has moved to place himself beyond the reach of the judicial branch as well. George Washington University political science professor, Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert, wrote that the decree's, "overall message might be summed up: 'I, Morsi, am all powerful. And in my first act as being all powerful, I declare myself more powerful still. But don't worry – it's just for a little while'".
Indeed that does seem to be one of Mr Morsi's primary messages. In a rally before thousands of cheering supporters on Friday outside the presidential palace the long-time senior Muslim Brotherhood official – narrowly elected in June with 51 per cent of the vote – said he never sought power and promised this was merely a temporary measure to ensure the success of the Egyptian revolution.
"If I see that the nation of the revolution might be in danger from those who are loyalists of the old regime ... I will act. It is a must," he said. "Don't be worried ... Let's move together into a new phase."
But while Mr Morsi is pledging to force through the goals of the first Egyptian revolution, his opponents are actively marshalling a second revolution against his rule. The decree has galvanised the opposition against him – bringing together major players such as Mohamed ElBaradei, a leader of the Egyptian opposition, Mr Moussa and the third-place presidential finisher, Hamdeen Sabahi, into the newly-formed National Salvation Front.
Tahrir Square – which for much of this year has been exclusively Islamist territory – has become the new epicentre of the anti-Morsi movement, while Mr Morsi's supporters have taken to gathering across town at the presidential palace.
The Tahrir protests have been marked by angry chants comparing Mr Morsi to the deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and running clashes with police as demonstrators tried to reach the nearby parliament and interior ministry.
Yesterday, police erected a wall of concrete blocks across Qasr El Aini street preventing protesters from reaching the government buildings. State media reported yesterday that the justice minister, Ahmed Mekki, had begun mediation efforts to forge a compromise between Mr Morsi and the judges.
The back-and-forth street action promises to play out throughout the week with both sides calling for massive demonstrations tomorrow.
"There is a good deal of anger, chaos, confusion. Violence is spreading to many places and state authority is starting to erode slowly," Mr ElBaradei said on Saturday.
"We hope that we can manage to do a smooth transition without plunging the country into a cycle of violence. But I don't see this happening without Morsi rescinding all of this ... There is no middle ground, no dialogue before he rescinds this declaration. There is no room for dialogue until then."
The United States state department, which just last week had praised Mr Morsi for the role he played in brokering a ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, immediately registered its concern, warning that "one of the aspirations of the revolution was to ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution".
Yesterday, the US senator, John McCain, urged president Barack Obama to be prepared to use the billions in annual US aid to Egypt as a leverage point to pressure Mr Morsi.
Asked on Fox News Sunday, a US news programme, about the chance of a new Islamist state in Egypt, Mr McCain replied: "I think it could be headed that way. You also could be headed back into a military takeover if things went in the wrong direction. You could also see a scenario where there is continued chaos."
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse