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President Morsi stands firm despite Egypt protests

Morsi’s grab for more power has prompted days of protest by judges and youth, but the president appears confident that he has the numbers on his side.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi attempted to calm a furor raised by his decree expanding his powers as clashes between police and a small group of protesters continued in Cairo today. 

The president’s administration issued a statement emphasizing the temporary nature of his nearly unchecked authority, and said his constitutional decree granting it was not meant to concentrate his powers. 

The statement came as some judges were on strike to protest his move, which sidelines the judiciary and removes nearly all checks to President Morsi’s power, making his decisions and laws immune to challenge until a new constitution is written. A nationwide judges’ strike would mount a strong challenge to Morsi, but it was unclear how widespread the strike was as it appeared that many courts were still working. 

The protests, both on the street and in the courtroom, do not appear large enough to dent the president’s momentum, says Mustapha Kamel Al Sayyid, a political science professor at theAmerican University in Cairo.

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“I think that the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is planning a big demonstration … on Tuesday suggests that they are not inclined to accept a compromise,” he says. “I think they are planning to send a message that they have more support in the country than the secularists, and they will not change their position.” 

The presidency’s statement indicates that rather than compromise, his administration wants to convince people to accept his exceptional powers because they only last for several months. “Of course, with these powers much could be done in two months,” says Dr. Sayyid.

Protests dwindled

A protest against Morsi’s decree by thousands of people in Tahrir square Friday dwindled to hundreds today. Several dozen tents stood in the square’s garden, where some protesters are sleeping at night. Both opposition groups and the Muslim Brotherhood have called rival rallies in Cairo for Tuesday. 

Protesters fighting police on the outskirts of Tahrir square today near the American embassy say they want to bring down the president’s new decree. But the group of several hundred rock-wielding mostly teenage boys also appeared eager for a row with the police. 

Clashes between protesters and police have run almost nonstop since Nov. 19, when a demonstration held to commemorate deadly clashes between protesters and police last year devolved, once again, into violence. The low-level exchange of rocks and tear gas continued as Tahrir square filled up with protesters against Morsi’s decree Friday, with some of the demonstrators joining the fight against police but most protesting peacefully in the square. 

Security forces built a wall of concrete blocks across a major downtown road overnight in an attempt to separate protesters and police. The wall was a reminder to many in Cairo that turmoil seems to be the only constant during the nearly two years since a popular uprising swept formerPresident Hosni Mubarak from power. Just over a year ago, security forces built an almost identical wall in nearly the same spot after days of deadly fighting between police and demonstrators protesting the military junta that then ruled Egypt. (Security forces have built nearly half a dozen others nearby after similar clashes.) 

Many Egyptians had hoped that the instability would end after they elected a new president. But Egypt’s stock market plunged Sunday – falling nearly 10 percent, the most in over a year – on its first day open since Morsi’s decree, as it has done many times over the turmoil of the past years. Around 500 people have been hurt in the past three days of protests. 

Some of the young men joining in the rock-throwing against police complained bitterly that this police force was no different than the one that was notorious for brutality and abuse under Mr. Mubarak, and which continued those policies under military rule. “Morsi’s police is attacking us and shooting us just like Mubarak’s police did,” said Ahmed Ali, a 14-year-old protester who wore a scarf because of tear gas. “And now Morsi wants to be a dictator. We won’t allow a new dictator to take Mubarak’s place.” 

Some judges had reacted angrily to Morsi’s decree, with the influential Judges Club calling for a nationwide strike. While courts in several cities were reported to have stopped working today, others were still handling cases. The judiciary has repeatedly delayed Egypt’s transition, dissolving its first post-uprising elected parliament, and disbanding a committee elected to write the constitution. Morsi has said that declaring the new constituent assembly immune from court decisions that would disband it, and preventing judicial challenges to his decisions, was the only way to move Egypt through its transition period to stability with a new constitution and parliament.