In Egypt, president’s power grab unites those who once battled over Mubarak

Supporters of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and the human rights advocates who dedicated themselves to toppling the longtime autocrat never dreamed they would find themselves chanting the same slogans.

But with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s decision on Thursday to assume near-absolute power over his country, at least for now, secularists of all stripes have mobilized in ways unimaginable just a week ago. With Islamists largely backing Morsi, a battle is quickly taking shape over the degree to which religion will play a role in post-revolutionary Egypt’s government.

On Sunday, despite a nascent rebellion among the judiciary, Morsi’s office said he would hold firm to his decisions. He also flexed his newly expanded powers for the first time, changing several labor laws by fiat. In a sign of fear about instability to come, Egypt’s main stock index plunged by almost 10 percent on the first trading day since Morsi’s announcement. It was the steepest drop since the turbulent days immediately after the revolution.

But Morsi also announced he would meet with the Egypt’s judges group on Monday, laying the possibility for concessions.

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies and his opposition plan to hold dueling demonstrations across the country on Tuesday in a bid to rally support, pro and con, in the biggest test yet of the power of each side to mobilize. With a new constitution set to be approved in the coming months, Tahrir Square — the heart of the revolution that toppled Mubarak — has in recent days become a rallying place for both liberal secularists and those who have scorned them as naive.

Members of the long-
suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, have been marshalling themselves in front of the very institutions once used against them. With many judges and prosecutors threatening a strike, Egypt has quickly been embroiled in a crisis that may threaten the democratic ideals of the revolution more than any other development in the tumultuous 21 months since Mubarak was deposed.

In a measure of the topsy-turvy nature of the developing anti-Morsi coalition, idealistic liberal groups find themselves fighting the sidelining of a judiciary that in recent months has let many Mubarak-era officials walk away unpunished from charges of corruption and abuses. Meanwhile, law-and-order supporters of Egypt’s military and police force find themselves dodging tear gas, shouting the same anti-government lines once used against Mubarak.

The shifting lines were already on display in the June presidential elections, when Morsi narrowly beat Ahmed Shafiq, an emblem of the old guard, with just 52 percent of the vote. This time the common cause has new urgency, with Morsi removing the final check on his power by saying that courts do not have the right to review his decisions. The legislature was dissolved before he took office.

Few among the opposition expect the coalition to be durable. Whether it will be enough to get Morsi to back down has yet to be seen.

“New people who’ve never been to Tahrir, they went on Friday,” said Hatem Farrag, 42, a businessman and charity operator who said his only other protest since the revolution had been last month to object to Morsi’s first attempt to sack the Mubarak-
appointed prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmoud. Liberals and Islamists alike have complained that Mahmoud was perverting justice to protect the old Mubarak elite and demanded his ouster. But when Mahmoud lost his job for good as part of the presidential announcement last week, liberal groups joined with protesters such as Farrag to object to the manner in which the prosecutor was pushed out.

The decree “gives Morsi absolute power that Mubarak never dreamed of having,” Farrag said. “In a very short time, he united all the people who you could never believe would give the same statement.”

The military council that ran Egypt until Morsi came to power held to its promises, Farrag said, but not the Muslim Brotherhood. He said he had been part of a moderate political movement before the revolution and joined in the first protests in Tahrir on Jan. 25, 2011, expecting to see reforms, not regime change.

Many liberal politicians and activists, who have until now been plagued by infighting, said their main aim was to redeem the democratic advances they had made since the end of Mubarak’s rule. The Obama administration has also expressed its concern.

The “essential goal is to overthrow the illegitimate constitutional declaration,” said a statement from the National Salvation Front, an alliance of liberal groups and politicians formed Saturday to fight the decrees. The alliance ranges from youthful, well-
educated elites to politicians such as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa — a former Mubarak official whom many in the youth movement view with suspicion.

“It’s hard for us to compromise on something in the middle,” said Ziad Abdel Tawab, the deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which has collaborated with other rights groups in protesting the measures. He said that Mubarak sympathizers, liberal politicians and human rights organizations “seem to share some common ideas,” even if they held starkly different visions for the country.

“There is positive energy in that people didn’t lose hope,” Abdel Tawab said. But he said that he and others were suspicious that a deal might be reached between those who miss the old autocracy and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood allies.

Compromise to preserve power “is something that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been very good at,” he said.

Morsi’s office on Sunday said that he would meet with the judges’ main administrative body on Monday to explain his decision but that he would not back down. In a statement, his office repeated that the move was temporary and said that he wanted dialogue with all political forces in the country.

“This declaration is deemed necessary in order to hold accountable those responsible for corruption as well as other crimes during the previous regime and the transitional period,” the statement said.

Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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