In a thunderous speech in front of a presidential palace in Cairo, Morsi told thousands of cheering supporters that the sweeping decrees he issued Thursday were intended to defend the revolution that led to Morsi’s election this June.
But just a few miles away in Tahrir Square, thousands more people, most of them well-educated and secular, said that they were resolved to press for another revolution, this time against the Islamist leader who won 52 percent of the presidential vote. Many people said Morsi’s actions were verging on dictatorship.
The Obama administration expressed dismay over Morsi’s action. Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, noted that a core aim of the upheaval that toppled Mubarak had been to “ensure that power would not be overly concentrated in the hands of any one person or institution.”
Having congratulated Morsi earlier in the week for his statesmanship in fostering a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, State Department officials said the United States was seeking an explanation for the new move, which removed all judicial checks over Morsi’s actions.
In his speech, Morsi used harsh language in denouncing judges and prosecutors for doing too little to address the corruption and abuses of the Mubarak years. “There are weevils eating away at Egypt’s nation,” Morsi said.
“It is my duty to move forward with the goals of the revolution and eliminate all of the obstacles which are linked to the past that we hate,” he said.
Clashes broke out across the country in response to the move. The offices of the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing were torched over Morsi’s close links to those organizations. A Morsi adviser who is a Coptic Christian resigned.
“We have been living in a dictatorship for a very long time, but not like this,” said Yehia el-Gamal, a constitutional law expert who served as a deputy prime minister early in the post-Mubarak era. He said the move went well beyond anything that Mubarak or his predecessors Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser had attempted in the years since 1956 when the monarchy was toppled.
Morsi and his supporters, who include the ultraconservative Nour Party and other groups of political Islamists, have said that the moves were necessary at a time when obstacles erected by judges and prosecutors installed under Mubarak have blocked the new president’s agenda.
His supporters say the action was intended in large part to protect the work of a committee appointed to write a new constitution at a time when Egypt’s highest court had signaled that it might disband that squabbling body. Morsi has said he will relinquish his extraordinary powers after the constitution is written and a new legislature elected.