The outbreak of violence yesterday in Tahir Square revealed the fraying patience of Egyptians, who are dealing with a sluggish economy, uncertain future and little sign of justice being handed out against members of the old regime.
Worst Egyptian violence since Morsi assumed power
CAIRO // More than 100 people were injured in clashes between duelling protest groups in Tahrir Square yesterday, in the worst bout of violence since President Mohammed Morsi took power in June.
Fights broke out between pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters who had come to the square to demonstrate against the acquittal of officials accused of sponsoring violence during the uprising that toppled the Hosni Mubarak's regime and liberal groups who had scheduled a protest against the president's slow progress since taking office.
The result was two groups with highly different political views pouring into Tahrir Square. By mid-afternoon, fights erupted when one of the liberal speakers criticised the president. A group of Brotherhood supporters attacked a stage and soon after, rock fights broke out. By nightfall, there was an uneasy standoff punctured occasionally by hand-to-hand fights, as well as the use of Molotov cocktails.
The outbreak of violence yesterday revealed the fraying patience of Egyptians, who are dealing with a sluggish economy, uncertain future and little sign of justice being meted out against members of the old regime.
Mr Morsi had sought to ease some of the tensions on the eve of the protests on Thursday night, when he announced that he was removing the public prosecutor and appoint him as ambassador to the Vatican after what many observers said was another example of his poor handling of criminal cases against former members of the Mubarak regime. The announcement came a day after all 24 men accused of causing the "Camel Battle" on February 2, 2011 - a particularly violent day during the uprising against the Mubarak regime - were acquitted due to weak evidence.
But even that decision has backfired, putting Mr Morsi in a legal dilemma, after Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor, said late on Thursday night that he was refusing to step down and that the president could not unilaterally remove a member of the judiciary.
Mr Mahmoud's case was bolstered yesterday by the Judges' Club, a union for judges in Egypt.
Ahmed El Zind, the head of the Judges' Club, said the group was backing up Mr Mahmoud's refusal to resign because of the importance of upholding "the sovereignty of the law and the principle of separation of powers", according to the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper.
Legal analysts said the backlash from members of the judiciary yesterday has put Mr Morsi in a difficult position because he does not technically have the power to force Mr Mahmoud out of office.
"I don't see how Morsi can't avoid backing down if the prosecutor general says he wants to keep the job," said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC, who closely follows legal issues in Egypt. On Thursday, "I saw this as the equivalent of Morsi's removal of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - a well-timed political move that consolidated the president's authority. On Friday, it looks a bit more like Morsi's attempt to reconvene parliament - a questionable legal move that may fizzle."
Egypt's judiciary branch has a long history of fighting to maintain its independence from the executive branch, even under the nearly 30-year reign of Mubarak. But several occasions this year have raised questions about whether judges were using their power to counteract the rise in followers of political Islam - most prominently the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ruled in June that the Islamist-dominated parliament should be dissolved because of a technicality. The decision was in line with two similar decisions in 1987 and 1990, but the timing just before the presidential elections gave rise to criticism that the judges were overstepping their traditional role.
Mr Morsi sought yesterday to prevent a deeper rift from forming with the judiciary in a speech near Alexandria following Friday prayers.
In remarks published by the Egyptian State Information Service (SIS), he said that he "does not blame the judge who issued the verdict acquitting the defendants in the Camel Battle case, or other judges who acquitted symbols of the former regime, because judges are committed to the papers and documents offered to them". He did not address the issue of the public prosecutor.
The SIS said Mr Morsi said that Egypt "cannot turn a blind eye to those who spoilt the homeland and committed crimes against it".