Cairo's Tahrir Square was nearly empty as the sun rose Saturday. A few demonstrators camped out overnight after mass protests on Friday condemned controversial decrees by Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi.
Earlier this week, Morsi gave himself unchecked powers until a constitution is written and passed by a popular referendum — in about two months. He also decreed that neither the body writing the constitution nor the upper house of Parliament could be dissolved by the courts.
That set off angry demonstrations. On a side street just off Tahrir Square, clashes continued between young, scrappy men who hate the police and tear-gas-throwing cops. In the square — the birthplace of last year's uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak — people pitched some 20 tents for an open sit-in against the Islamist president's actions.
But on Saturday morning, Tahrir Square looked more like a disheveled camping site than the start of an uprising against the president. There were little more than 100 people in the square. Nearby, more than 30 soldiers guarded the Supreme Court as the general prosecutor started his first day on the job. Among the president's decrees was the replacement of the old general prosecutor, seen as a corrupt Mubarak-era figure.
Judges across Egypt condemned the president's actions as an "unprecedented attack" on the judiciary. Lawyers filed a suit demanding the nullification of Morsi's decrees.
Morsi's decision to neutralize the judiciary brought into sharp focus just how politically polarized this nation-in-transition is. But there are few signs that the country is in the throes of a new revolution.
Power Grab Or Protecting Democracy?
"At the end of the day, the numbers were not as decisive as we would have expected," says Yasser El-Shimy, an Egypt analyst at the International Crisis Group. "The potential for this to continue and escalate, I would say, is that it is possible, but it's not exactly overwhelming."
Shimy says that while he understands critics who see Morsi's move as a power grab to make himself an unchecked leader, the reality is much more nuanced.
Morsi hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's most historic Islamist organization. The Supreme Constitutional Court is made up entirely of Mubarak-era judges. That court dissolved the lower house of the elected Parliament earlier this year, which was dominated by the Brotherhood. The court then dissolved the first assembly tasked with writing the constitution, which was also dominated by Islamists. Another case that had been scheduled for the court on Dec. 2 would have given the court the opportunity to disband the new assembly that is writing Egypt's constitution.
Morsi "did what he did, in a way, to secure all elected — or popularly elected and democratically elected — institutions in Egypt against the potential of them being completely dissolved by the Mubarak-appointed institutions," Shimy says. But others don't see it that way.
'A Huge Crisis'
"It is a disastrous decree," says Egyptian judge Yussef Auf, "because it included seven main points — at least five points of them is like fighting or undermining or controlling or limiting the authority of the judicial power in Egypt, and that's a huge crisis, actually."
Auf blames bickering political forces. When Islamists won much of the Parliament and dominated the constituent assembly, secular politicians filed complaints with the courts, and by doing so, dragged them into the political fight. Auf says this effectively politicized the courts in a nation now polarized along Islamist versus secular lines.
For human rights workers, the biggest concern is the decree that makes any decision issued by the president above the law, from now until a constitution is passed. They are also wary of a catch-all phrase that allows the president any power he deems necessary to protect the revolution. That could mean anything, says Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.
"What Morsi and the Brotherhood don't realize is that this is a fundamentally undemocratic move to have made," she says, "that it threatens the rule of law, it threatens the role of the judiciary. It threatens the checks and balances."
For now, Morsi's answer to those concerns seems to be, "Trust me."
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