CAIRO – Egypt's president told the country's top judges Monday that he did not infringe on their authority when he seized near absolute powers, setting up a prolonged showdown on the eve of a mass protest planned by opponents of the Islamist leader.
An aide to President Mohammed Morsi said the decree was limited to "sovereignty-related issues," but that did not satisfy his critics.
The uncompromising stance came during a meeting between Morsi and members of the Supreme Judiciary Council in a bid to resolve a four-day crisis that has plunged the country into a new round of turmoil with clashes between the two sides that have left one protester dead and hundreds wounded.
The judiciary, the main target of Morsi's edicts, also has pushed back, calling the decrees a power grab and an "assault" on the branch's independence. Judges and prosecutors stayed away from many courts in Cairo and other cities on Sunday and Monday.
A spokesman said Morsi told the judges that he acted within his right as the nation's sole source of legislation when he issued decrees putting himself above judicial oversight. The president also extended the same immunity to two bodies dominated by his Islamist allies — a panel drafting a new constitution and parliament's mostly toothless upper chamber.
The spokesman, Yasser Ali, also told reporters that Morsi assured the judges that the decrees did not in any way "infringe" on the judiciary and that they were "temporary" and limited only to "sovereignty-related issues."
Two prominent rights lawyers — Gamal Eid and Ahmed Ragheb — dismissed Ali's remarks.
Eid said they were designed to keep "Morsi above the law," while Ragheb said they amounted to "playing with words."
"This is not what Egyptians are objecting to and protesting about. If the president wanted to resolve the crisis, there should be an amendment to his constitutional declaration."
Ali's comments signaled Morsi's resolve not to back down or compromise on the constitutional amendments he announced last week, raising the likelihood of more violence. Both sides had planned competing rallies in Cairo on Tuesday, but the Brotherhood cancelled its rally late Monday, saying it wanted to reduce tension and congestion in the city.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke Monday by telephone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr to "register American concerns about Egypt's political situation," according to spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
Clinton, she said, stressed that the U.S. wanted to "see the constitutional process move forward in a way that does not overly concentrate power in one set of hands, that ensures that rule of law, checks and balances, protection of the rights of all groups in Egypt are upheld," Nuland said.
Opposition activists have denounced Morsi's decrees as a blatant power grab, and refused to enter a dialogue with the presidency before the edicts are rescinded. The president has vigorously defended the new powers, saying they are a necessary temporary measure to implement badly needed reforms and protect Egypt's transition to democracy after last year's ouster of his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi says he wants to retain the new powers until the new constitution is adopted in a nationwide referendum and parliamentary elections are held, a time line that stretches to the middle of next year.
Many members of the judiciary were appointed under Mubarak, drawing allegations, even by some of Morsi's critics, that they are trying to perpetuate the regime's corrupt practices. But opponents are angry that the decrees leave Morsi without any check on his power.
Morsi, who became Egypt's first freely elected president in June, was quoted by Ali as telling his prime minister and security chiefs earlier Monday that his decrees were designed to "end the transitional period as soon as possible."
His comments appeared to run contrary to a prediction made earlier Monday by Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki that a resolution of the crisis was imminent. Mekki, who has been mediating between the judiciary and the presidency to try to defuse the crisis, did not give any details.
The dispute is the latest crisis to roil the Arab world's most populous nation, which has faced mass protests, a rise in crime and economic woes since the initial euphoria following the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak after nearly 30 years of autocratic rule.
Morsi's decrees were motivated in part by a court ruling in June that dissolved the parliament's more powerful lower chamber known as the People's Assembly, which was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Islamists.
The verdict meant that legislative authority first fell in the hands of the then-ruling military, but Morsi grabbed it in August after he ordered the retirement of the army's two top generals.
Morsi's decrees, which were announced Thursday, saved the constitutional panel and the upper chamber from a fate similar to that of the People's Assembly because several courts looking into the legal basis of their creation were scheduled to issue verdicts to disband them.
Ayman al-Sayyad, a member of Morsi's 17-member advisory council, said the presidential aides asked the president in meetings over the weekend to negotiate a way out of the crisis and enter dialogue with all political forces to iron out differences over the nation's new constitution.
Secular and Christian politicians have withdrawn from the 100-seat panel tasked with drafting the charter to protest what they call the hijacking of the process by Morsi's Islamist allies. They fear the Islamists would produce a draft that infringes on the rights of liberals, women and the minority Christians.
The president, al-Sayyad added, would shortly take decisions that would spare the nation a "possible sea of blood." He did not elaborate.
The dispute over the decrees, the latest in the country's bumpy transition to democracy, has taken a toll on the nation's already ailing economy. Egypt's benchmark stock index dropped more than 9.5 percentage points on Sunday, the first day of trading since Morsi's announcement. It fell again Monday during early trading but recovered to close up by 2.6 percentage points.
It has also played out in urban street protests across the country, including in the capital, Cairo, and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
Thousands gathered in Damanhoor for the funeral procession of 15-year-old Islam Abdel-Maksoud, who was killed Sunday when a group of anti-Morsi protesters tried to storm the local offices of the political arm of the president's fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group.
The Health Ministry said Monday that 444 people also have been wounded nationwide, including 49 who remain hospitalized, since the clashes erupted on Friday, according to a statement carried by the official news agency MENA.
Morsi's office said in a statement that he had ordered the country's top prosecutor to investigate the teenager's death, along with that of another young man shot in Cairo last week during demonstrations to mark the anniversary of deadly protests last year that called for an end to the then-ruling military.
Up to 10,000 people marched through Cairo's Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the uprising against Mubarak, for the funeral procession of 16-year-old Gaber Salah, who succumbed to his head wounds on Sunday. Salah was wounded in clashes with police in the capital during protests against the Brotherhood earlier last week, before the decrees were issued.
Mourners marched with the Salah's body laid in a coffin wrapped in Egypt's red, white and black flag from Tahrir to a cemetery east of the city. Already images of Salah have appeared on Tahrir's walls. Underneath the images were the words: "Your blood will spark a new revolution."
Salah was a member of April 6, one of the key right groups behind the anti-Mubarak uprising. He was also a founder of a Facebook group called "Against the Muslim Brotherhood."
Also on Monday, Human Rights Watch said that Morsi's decrees undermined the rule of law in Egypt and appeared to give him the power to issue emergency-style measures at any time for vague reasons. In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in thinly veiled criticism that the separation of powers was a fundamental principle of any democratic constitution.
Morsi, added spokesman Steffen Seibert, has a "great responsibility" to lead Egypt to a "democratically ordered political system" that rests on that principle.